the hi-tech gift economy

The 'New Economy' is a Mixed Economy

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, almost nobody still believes in the inevitable victory of communism. On the contrary, large numbers of people accept that the Hegelian 'end of history' has culminated in American neo-liberal capitalism [24]. Yet, at exactly this moment in time, a really existing form of anarcho-communism is being constructed within the Net, especially by people living in the U. S. When they go on-line, almost everyone spends most of their time participating within the gift economy rather than engaging in market competition. Because users receive much more information than they can ever give away, there is no popular clamour for imposing the equal exchange of the marketplace on the Net. Once again, the 'end of history' for capitalism appears to be communism.

For the hi-tech gift economy was not an immanent possibility in every age. On the contrary, the market and the state could only be surpassed in this specific sector at this particular historical moment. Crucially, people need sophisticated media, computing and telecommunications technologies to participate within the hi-tech gift economy. A manually-operated press produced copies which were relatively expensive, limited in numbers and impossible to alter without recopying. After generations of technological improvements, the same quantity of text on the Net costs almost nothing to circulate, can be copied as needed and can be remixed at will. In addition, individuals need both time and money to participate within the hi-tech gift economy. While a large number of the world's population still lives in poverty, people within the industrialised countries have steadily reduced their hours of employment and increased their wealth over a long period of social struggles and economic reorganisations. By working for money during some of the week, people can now enjoy the delights of giving gifts at other times. Only at this particular historical moment have the technical and social conditions of the metropolitan countries developed sufficiently for the emergence of digital anarcho-communism [25].

"Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production." [26]

The New Left anticipated the emergence of the hi-tech gift economy. People could collaborate with each other without needing either markets or states. However, the New Left had a purist vision of DIY culture: the gift was the absolute antithesis of the commodity. Yet, anarcho-communism only exists in a compromised form on the Net. Contrary to the ethical-aesthetic vision of the New Left, money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis. On the one hand, each method of working does threaten to supplant the other. The hi-tech gift economy heralds the end of private property in 'cutting edge' areas of the economy. The digital capitalists want to privatise the shareware programs and enclose the social spaces built through voluntary effort. The potlatch and the commodity remain irreconcilable.

Yet, on the other hand, the gift economy and the commercial sector can only expand through mutual collaboration within cyberspace. The free circulation of information between users relies upon the capitalist production of computers, software and telecommunications. The profits of commercial Net companies depend upon increasing numbers of people participating within the hi-tech gift economy. For instance, Netscape has tried to realise the opportunities opened up by such interdependence from its foundation. Under threat from the Microsoft monopoly, the company has to ally itself with the hacker community to avoid being overwhelmed. It started by distributing its Web browser as a gift. Today the source code of this program is freely available and the development of products for Linux has become a top priority. The commercial survival of Netscape depends upon successfully collaborating with hackers from the hi-tech gift economy. Anarcho-communism is now sponsored by corporate capital [27].

""Hi there Mr CEO [Chief Executive Officer] - tell me, do you have any strategic problem right now that is bigger than whether Microsoft is going to either crush you or own your soul in a few years? No? You don't? OK, well, listen carefully then. You cannot survive against Bill Gates [by] playing Bill Gates' game. To thrive, or even survive, you're going to have to change the rules ..."" [28]

The purity of the digital DIY culture is also compromised by the political system. The state isn't just the potential censor and regulator of the Net. At the same time, the public sector provides essential support for the hi-tech gift economy. In the past, the founders of the Net never bothered to incorporate intellectual property within the system because their wages were funded from taxation. In the future, governments will have to impose universal service provisions upon commercial telecommunications companies if all sections of society are to have the opportunity to circulate free information. Furthermore, when access is available, many people use the Net for political purposes, including lobbying their political representatives. Within the digital mixed economy, anarcho-communism is also symbiotic with the state.

This miscegenation occurs almost everywhere within cyberspace. For instance, an on-line conference site can be constructed as a labour of love, but still be partially funded by advertising and public money. Crucially, this hybridisation of working methods is not confined within particular projects. When they're on-line, people constantly pass from one form of social activity to another. For instance, in one session, a Net user could first purchase some clothes from an e-commerce catalogue, then look for information about education services from the local council's site and then contribute some thoughts to an on-going discussion on a listserver for fiction-writers. Without even consciously having to think about it, this person would have successively been a consumer in a market, a citizen of a state and an anarcho-communist within a gift economy. Far from realising theory in its full purity, working methods on the Net are inevitably compromised. The 'New Economy' is an advanced form of social democracy [29].

At the end of the twentieth century, anarcho-communism is no longer confined to avant-garde intellectuals. What was once revolutionary has now become banal. As Net access grows, more and more ordinary people are circulating free information across the Net. Crucially, their potlatches are not attempts to regain a lost emotional authenticity. Far from having any belief in the revolutionary ideals of May '68, the overwhelming majority of people participate within the hi-tech gift economy for entirely pragmatic reasons. Sometimes they buy commodities on-line and access state-funded services. However, they usually prefer to circulate gifts amongst each other. Net users will always obtain much more than will ever be contributed in return. By giving away something which is well-made, they will gain recognition from those who download their work. For most people, the gift economy is simply the best method of collaborating together in cyberspace. Within the mixed economy of the Net, anarcho-communism has become an everyday reality.

"We must rediscover the pleasure of giving: giving because you have so much. What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see - whether it likes it or not! - when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift." [30]

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