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Voluntary Collaborationism: The Emergent Economic Model?
RU Sirius   Sep 22, 2015   Ethical Technology  


I wrote this article in May 2011 for H+ magazine.  I am sharing it on IEET today, with updated commentary.

I am forming the US Open Source Party in with Krist Novoselic, Jon Lebkowsky and others, as an example of voluntary collaborationism towards a political goal.

2015 commentary is in bold and italics.

2011: Over the last couple of years, in various interviews and discussions, I’ve been dropping the notion that Voluntary Collaborationism is the model for productive and creative activity and exchange for the future. I like to say that this is the emergent property of a networked culture. I certainly hope so.

I was moved to contemplate this further a few days ago when David Cobb asked me to be among the respondents who would be quoted on his “The Future and You” radio show, asking for a prediction about the future… particularly a trend that has largely been ignored. I responded thusly:

“Some time, we’ll either have a full-on global economic collapse, or we’ll have a long boom that’s substantial enough to paper over our debt-based economic difficulties.  Either way — whether through desperation, or through the privilege of being comfortable and being able to act on our desires — the main future economic activity of most people will be transparent, open source, voluntary collaboration. Profit-based and state-based activities will continue, but they will slowly recede.  This is the natural result of a technologically advanced, networked society, but it will require either a breakdown or a breakthrough to help us make the shift.” 2015:  Polls where I’m asked to make brief commentary sometimes impel me to express myself in absolutes. I don’t particularly think we’re going to have a full-on global economic collapse or a boom long and substantial enough to paper over the troubles of debt-based global capitalism in its current form.  

I think Open Source politics, with its implicit promise to make transparent most aspects of currency/capital flow, may lead us towards solutions that are robust, agile and fair to all. A platform position that might be a raw start leading towards this might be something along the lines of “Democratize the Fed.”.

The evidence for Voluntary Collaborationism (VC) as an emergent property is largely intuitive, in the sense that I can’t point to VC/open source projects today that are making an incursion of any size into the massive economy of production and exchange dominated by capital and the state. (2015: In comments on H+, someone mentioned Linux, and pointed out that it was 70% of the server side market) VC today lies largely beneath the surface of the more prominent activities that involve the pursuit of monetary value, involuntary (albeit, often democratic) social cooperation and charity. It is, today, a soft power of manifest usefulness in projects like Linux and Wikipedia, two efforts that are small change in an economic sense, but – at least for me – a big deal, in terms of quality of life. Speaking personally, losing Firefox and Wikipedia would feel like an amputation — almost as harmful to my ability to carry on my life’s work as the permanent loss of the use of a decent smartphone. (Wow. I really did rely on those things! I feel like I’ve lost Firefox… it’s not very good anymore… and I look to  Wikipedia far less in my research…)

Additionally, it seems pretty clear that VC is a powerful attractor for human activity and community. Its manifest in hundreds of DIY/Open Source/Maker/Citizen Scientist projects; in the way groups of people will spend more creative energy on their yearly Burner projects than they do on their jobs; in the emergence of gamification as a way to turn work into group play.  2015: Burning Man, of course, is a devalued reference—no longer cool. Some people will say it wasn’t even cool in 2011... One thing I hope for from Open Source Party and any other attempt to unify people for change is that more people of all ages will stop acting like they’re still in high school.)

In an introduction to my 2006 book, True Mutations, I put it this way:

The way hackers and other computer enthusiasts, and ravers, and old school punkers, and Burners will work and play and put in their own time and money to do something not because there is a potential for profits or awards or honors but out of sheer enthusiasm indicates something about human beings that goes unrecognized in both capitalist and socialist societies that presume people have to be coerced into making efforts.

2015: Ravers are also memetic poison, of course. None of this is particularly relevant to the ideas I’m working through here, except in the sense that an argument can be made that these events/trends/movements don’t have lasting resilience and power. But other voluntary collaborationist cultural projects will emerge.

A lot of these cultural forms will have their moments of iridescence and, eventually, people will start to dislike them just for being around too long.  This is a manifestation of a deep dissatisfaction — an itch that can’t be scratched by cultural expressions and groovy new identities. People are (mostly unconsciously) pissed off when the new cultural thing can’t deliver real social/political/economic change and a fairer distribution of power.

Granted a certain amount of autonomy, a certain permission to put some creativity into their work, and a certain shared sense of community, people will do all kinds of stuff simply because its engaging to do and can be shared.

2015: If there has been a decline in enthusiasm for nonpaying participation it is likely due to increasing economic pressures, although a concordant increase in directly political voluntary collaboration might be a more favorable culprit.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about guaranteed annual income.  That’s a complicated issue best left to another discussion, but if guaranteed annual income was to become a real and functional thing, that would likely be the proving ground upon which VC could grow into a substantial economic/livelihood force.

So, damn it, why hasn’t my Voluntary Collaborationism memeplex gone viral!? 2015: Not crazy enough!

I’m being a big silly and playful about ego here, but allow me to take this seriously for the moment. VC is essentially a left libertarian ideological construct in many ways limned from Kropotkin’s left anarchist ideal of mutual aid as a model for organizing the production and distribution of wealth. But Kropotkin’s idea has the memetic advantage of being radical and absolute. Left anarchists would overthrow the state and capitalism and bring about societies based on mutual aid. In contrast, my concept is self-admittedly pretty softcore. 2015: Not absolute enough! After all, it proposes that VC or “mutual aid” or perhaps “mutual productive play” will arise as an emergent and ultimately dominant evolutionary property in a society that will still include the market (2015: There’s some dynamism still left in that old whore) and the state (2015: There’s some types of security and organizational unity still needed from Nanny.)  So, in this era of anger and disenfranchisement, it perhaps lacks the visceral appeal of a revolutionary manifesto. Perhaps!?

But, while I do think there are all kinds of reasons to participate in political activism, I also believe that VC will largely emerge as a manifestation of technological and social trends buoyed either by a near future economic opportunity to escape the grind into a more playful world or by the necessity of collaborating when the dominant modes of production and exchange go too deep into crisis to provide for most of us. 2015: Noooo. I was doing a bit of the techno-inevitability thing there. After all, I was writing for Humanity Plus. There are a lot of possible futures. Voluntary Collaborationism seems like a desirable one but not an inevitable (or even a likely) one.

Those of us who have been participating in Voluntary Collaborationist projects should perhaps start thinking about how to make this work as a way of life.  (It’s unlikely to occur without some political activism).

I want to acknowledge that, as I write this, there’s a horrendous refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions occurring in Europe and the Mediterranean. Real, non-abstract human tragedies of this magnitude do not bend before good ideas (or bad ones). We can claim that the world is being badly managed by the current configurations of states and capital, but it’s impossible for a thinking person to be glib about being able to do much better. Maybe having more people engaged in reality and in having some political agency could have an impact. 


R.U. Sirius (real name Ken Goffman) is a writer, editor and digital culture iconoclast. He is currently organizing Open Source Party and is also organizing a history of his original early ‘90s cyberculture magazine, Mondo 2000, under the working title “Use Your Hallucinations: Mondo 2000 In Late 20th Century Cyberculture.”

R.U. Sirius (real name Ken Goffman) is a writer, editor and digital culture iconoclast. He is currently organizing Open Source Party and is also organizing a history of his original early '90s cyberculture magazine, Mondo 2000, under the working title “Use Your Hallucinations: Mondo 2000 In Late 20th Century Cyberculture.”


Thanks Ken—lots of invitation to thought here.

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