Manifesting the Internet: A Review of Dmytri Kleiner’s The Telekommunist Manifesto
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At the heart of any debate regarding the structure and future of the Internet is the question of ownership. The problem is that the "network of networks," that crowning achievement of late capitalism, is a property quagmire. It is built mainly of free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) coded long before the glimmer of commercialization twinkled in the California sunshine. That code was developed on government—and university—owned machines by researchers on federally subsidized salaries, only to be perfected by a loosely defined cadre of community-oriented libertarians. And yet upon that foundation of non-commercial, neutral, decentralized infrastructure, private Capital has erected its most glorious, if immaterial, cathedrals.
And so a proprietary façade wraps the Internet's communal architecture. The ownership question becomes even more complex with the wholesale digitization of culture, which frees cultural objects from the fetters of materiality. No longer is a "song" or a "novel" or a "film" inextricably bound to a physical medium; "content" writ large now exists as an ephemeral, infinitely reproducible and promiscuously sharable digital file. Owning a book or an album once seemed a straightforward proposition; today, "owning" a computer file implies the descent into an abyss of intellectual property laws, anti-circumvention technologies, licensing agreements, and compatibility concerns.
And then there is the question of value: who creates it? And who controls it? With the exponential growth of the Web—the most user-friendly element of the Internet—what looks to some like a utopian playground appears to others as a dystopian factory. Have social network users finally reached the nirvana of an infinitely performed identity hovering in a state of perpetual becoming? Or are those same users simply unwaged and exploited workers who toil dutifully to create surplus value to be appropriated by Silicon Valley?
It is from the intersection of these three problems—infrastructure, intellectual property, and cognitive labor—that Dmytri Kleiner proclaims his Telekommunist Manifesto (2010). Kleiner's Manifesto is not a unified call-to-arms, however. It is, rather, a revised anthology of texts Kleiner and his collaborators published from 2006-2010. What connects the six interventions collected here is, precisely, the problem of property as it relates to the Internet. Nor is the Telekommunist Manifesto (henceforth TKM) Kleiner's only attempt at the genre; he also calls several of his software projects "manifestos in code". If there is one refrain that resonates throughout his texts, his artworks, and his code, it is the following: "Capital cannot fund free and open platforms because capitalists must capture profit or lose their capital, and thus for-profit platforms that cannot capture profit must eventually vanish". In other words: there is a fundamental incompatibility between the peer network architecture that is the ontological condition of the Internet, on the one hand, and the proprietary, profit-seeking vision of the Internet that Capital calls Web 2.0, on the other.
Kleiner is not alone in thinking through these problems, and it is useful to situate his contribution within a broader community of left theorists of immaterial labor, cognitive capitalism, and digital enclosures. This community includes Mute Magazine (London), which originally published the two essays that form the core of the TKM; and the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam), which published the TKM, along with Matteo Pasquinelli's excellent Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008), Geert Lovink's numerous critical interventions into new media politics and practice, and a series of useful anthologies/readers on everything from Tactical Media and Glitch Aesthetics to Network Theory and Internet Pornography.
Mute Magazine's seminal 1995 essay "The California Ideology," by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, especially reverberates throughout the text. Kleiner names the contemporary practitioners of the California Ideology "teleliberals". Teleliberalism is clearly associated with Silicon Valley technology companies, but also with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Creative Commons organization, the TED Talk lecture circuit, and other such groups. These are Kleiner's proximate antagonists; and if they are not all US-based, then they all at least share a certain way of conceiving the Internet, confected in a North American oven of radical libertarian individualism, market triumphalism, and technoutopianism.
Kleiner also shares with Mute a cautious skepticism of Italian post-autonomous thought, especially that of Tony Negri and his US-based collaborator Michael Hardt. Although the Italian school post-autonomists have made important contributions towards theorizing Internet-mediated social life, Kleiner et. al. worry that a focus on immaterial labor and affectivity comes dangerously close to mimicking the technoutopian rhetoric of teleliberalism. That said, Kleiner has little to say about precarity, a key post-autonomous term that spans both the material and the immaterial realms.
Part of the reason Kleiner is not interested in the concept of the multitude and other related ideas is due to the fact that his manifesto is a pragmatic—rather than a theoretical—contribution. He wants to expand the leftist technological toolbox, and his offering is twofold: venture communism and copyfarleft. Both ideas represent "hacks" of, respectively, venture capitalism and copyright. Accordingly, the TKM has two sections. Each section critiques a problem connected to the political economy of the internet, and then presents an appropriate hack: "Peer-to-Peer Communism vs. the Client-Server Capitalist State" critiques venture capitalism and Web 2.0, while proposing venture communism as a leftist solution; "A Contribution to the Critique of Free Culture" does exactly as its title suggests, and gives a "lawyer-readable" Peer Production License as an alternative model to both copyright and to Creative Commons-based copyleft. It is worth noting that the TKM itself is published under this same Peer Production License, which was "forked" from the Creative Commons license.
"Forking" is a theme that runs throughout the text. It is a term Kleiner adopts from the FLOSS community, used to describe when a software project breaks into two distinct strands. The best introduction to Kleiner's "forking" practice is "The Manifesto of the Telekommunisten Network," a document which is "forked from text extracted from Section 2 of The Manifesto of the Communist Party" (26). Kleiner begins with the iconic list of ten measures, "pretty generally applicable" to all advanced capitalist countries, which closes the second section of Engels and Marx's 1848 Manifesto. He proceeds to enumerate a series of substitutions; taken together, these "forks" or revisions summarize Kleiner's entire proposal. Where Marx and Engels speak of "revolution," Kleiner substitutes "self-organization". The replacements are systematic, and best summarized in a chart:
|Communist Party||Telekommunisten Network|
|despotic inroads||venture communism|
|land||instruments of production|
|abolition of property||mutualization|
|town/country antagonism||producer/consumer antagonism|
The intention behind these substitutions becomes clear as the reader moves through Kleiner's two critiques and the two "hacks."
The first critique, "Peer-to-Peer Communism vs. the Client-Server Capitalist State", focuses on the political economy of network architecture and the problem of reproduction. In essence, the central question is how to reproduce peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in a way that denies Capital the ability to capture and appropriate the wealth they create? The solution, again, is the "hack" called venture communism: a way "to create and to reproduce commons-based productive relationships". (8)
For Kleiner, the Internet, as a networked connection of local networks, made specific promises: "the internet promised to be a platform where freedom of speech and association was built into the architecture" (14). Stated like this, the Internet appears to be just another modernist architectural utopia that builds emancipation into the social blueprint itself. Yet Kleiner makes an essential distinction that too easily confounds contemporary Internet users: the Internet is not the Web. "The World Wide Web is a technology that runs on top of the peer-to-peer network that is the internet; however, it is unlike the classic internet technologies like email, IRC, Usenet etc. The Web is neither distributed, nor is it peer-to-peer; it is a client-server technology" (15).
The Internet, Kleiner warns, has disappeared behind the Web. This is especially true with the phenomenon of Web 2.0, a Silicon Valley catch-all term that means something like "webpages optimized for user input and social media". In Kleiner's more pessimistic and critical vocabulary, Web 2.0 is nothing more than the "private capture of community-created value" (17), a superfluous web of central ownership and control spun over the Internet's free architecture. The popular video sharing site YouTube is an excellent example. YouTube as a website contributes a trivial innovation at the level of code: it is simply a repository for online video. The true innovation behind YouTube is the consumer technology that allows users to capture high-quality video, upload that content instantly, imbed and share links to the content, track and measure views, and comment...all via a relatively cheap consumer-grade smartphone. There is nothing special about YouTube per se; there are plenty of other video sharing websites that do the same thing, in addition to the alternative video sharing protocols like BitTorrent that savvy Internet users prefer.
Kleiner follows the money to locate the real value of YouTube, and he finds it "is not created by the developers of the site; rather, it is created by the people who upload videos to the site". Without users contributing content, YouTube would be nothing, and more importantly, it would be worth nothing (the same could be said about social network sites, wikis, and mircoblogging platforms). So much for the production of value on YouTube. Who captures that value? Kleiner continues: "Yet, when YouTube was bought for over a billion dollars of Google stock, how much of this stock was acquired by those that made all these videos? Zero. Zilch. Nada" (17). This is the key point, and it addresses all three property questions (infrastructure, IP, cognitive labor). In Web 2.0, the user community creates content, and that content is appropriated, monetized, and privatized by someone other than the user community. This is why Web 2.0 works for Capital, while Usenet and P2P networks don't: Capital needs to centralize the Internet so as to appropriate the value therein created. In a bit of hyperbole, Kleiner connects this struggle to historical struggles in the shift from European feudalism to early agrarian capitalism when he describes users as "a 'landless' proletariat ready to provide alienated content-creating labor for the new infolandlords of Web 2.0" (19). Web 2.0, then, is a fence-in-code. It is, in a word, an enclosure.
When he renames Web 2.0 as an enclosure, Kleiner undermines a teleliberal consensus: that immaterial peer production represents a new mode of production and, consequently, that the intellectual properties it produces do not behave like material commodities in the traditional Marxist sense. Richard Stallman, the Free Software guru, famously distinguished between free software (i.e. free-libre) and free beer (i.e. free-gratis), essentially advancing that free beer is a commodity given away at zero price, while free software is something else entirely. Kleiner dissents. Whether one codes free software or brews free beer or distributes free soup in a soup kitchen: in every case, it's all still production in a capitalist mode! Does a brewer "donate" his beer when he gives it away for free? Fine, but in that case, a coder "donates" her software when she releases it under a copyleft license, and that represents a very material "donation" of labor value.
Venture communism becomes the tool to prevent the info-enclosure brought about by Web 2.0. Kleiner postulates: "If we want to have a say in the way communication networks are operated, or if we want to make any social reforms whatsoever, we must start by preventing property owners from turning our productivity into their accumulated wealth" (20). Venture communism is an alternative financing scheme to fund the development and distribution of P2P Internet technologies that can resist capitalist appropriation. It is a "hack" of current property arrangements, in that Kleiner's proposal would allow a peer producing "firm" (i.e. a venture commune) to manage a common stock, "making property, such as the housing and tools they require, available to peer producers" (23). Labor would be the only way to contribute to the commune and vest oneself in the shared ownership, and the firm itself would be self-organizing and independent, requiring minimal coordination and focused exclusively on the allocation of the common stock resources among those who wish to employ it.
That, at least, is the proposal. Kleiner's blueprint to create a new network in the shell of the old is provisional at best, and he skims over some basic questions when describing the venture communes. If labor is the only way to vest oneself in the common stock of material assets, what happens to those unable to labor? How does a communard divest himself from one particular commune and join another? How to deal with large-scale problems like pollution, which is no respecter of the borders of self-organized collectives? It is also puzzling why Kleiner completely ignores economist Elinor Ostrom's abundant empirical work on common pool resource management, especially since Kleiner's venture commune is nothing more than a high-tech common pool resource management scheme.
Given Kleiner's general view—following Proudhon—that property is theft, it should be no scandal when Kleiner proclaims: "The exploitation of the author was embedded in the intellectual property regime from its inception" (29). He opens his "Contribution to the Critique of Free Culture" with a brief (and sketchy) historical account of copyright, concluding that copyright dresses up immaterial wealth in the garb of Lockean property: "Copyright is a legal construction that tries to make certain kinds of immaterial wealth behave like material wealth so that they can be owned, controlled, and traded" (29). Unfortunately, Kleiner's wholesale rejection of liberalism's language comes at a cost, as he spends unnecessary paragraphs describing, without naming, the important distinctions that act as the very justification for the liberal State's legal protection of intellectual property: the distinction between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, that between exclusive and non-excludable goods, and that between scarce and abundant resources.
Luckily, the historicization of intellectual property is not Kleiner's contribution to the critique of free culture. Rather, he seeks to expose certain shortcomings in alternative intellectual property schemes from his radical anarchist position. He looks towards the Free Software General Public License (GPL) as an early model of copyleft (that is, a leftist alternative to copyright). Copyleft, in all of its various manifestations, acts as a legal hack of copyright; the GPL, in particular, is a tool for Free Software coders to make a formal ownership claim on the software they program so as to have a legal foundation to enforce their practical anti-copyright. While the GPL, in Kleiner's estimation, has one critical shortcoming, the copyleft licenses promoted by Creative Commons (CC) represent an outright betrayal of the P2P spirit of the Internet. The GPL claims formal ownership of a piece of software so as to relinquish any practical ownership whatsoever; CC makes a formal claim of freedom while practically (and problematically, for Kleiner) retaining ownership. The GPL and anti-copyright models leave a cultural object open for capitalist appropriation, while the CC model merely allows for some 'customizable' options for a producer to be exploited. Neither model can effectively prevent the appropriation of surplus value created via intellectual endeavors. Kleiner's copyfarleft is a provisional legal framework to prevent that exploitation.
An example: the influential avant-garde journal Internationale Situationniste (1958-1969), during its 12-issue run, was published under an expansive anti-copyright. Although this encouraged others to reuse the IS materials without royalty payments or even proper attribution, it also left open the possibility of an opportunistic publisher commercially redistributing the IS materials under his own copyright, thus depriving the original authors of any compensation. Kleiner's copyfarleft would make such a situation impossible, as it distinguishes between two classes of users of cultural objects. If the user is part of a worker-owned business or collective, that user enjoys a "worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, perpetual" license (45). If the user is a private party and/or "seeks to generate profit from the labor of employees paid in salary or other wages" (46-7), that user has no right to reproduce, distribute, adapt, or perform the work. These stipulations are specified in a dense six-page "Peer Production License," the license under which Kleiner himself released the TKM. It puts into practice his complaint that the GPL leaves open the possibility of capitalist exploitation of Free Culture, and that CC is too closely aligned with the current capitalist system of cultural appropriation. In essence, the Peer Production License withdraws Free Culture from the capitalist domain.
Kleiner positions himself in the radical revolutionary tradition of rejecting reformism. His potent analogy is that CC resembles copyfarleft in the way that trade unions resemble workers councils (35). Both CC and trade unions are reformist compromises with an already-existing system (intellectual property law and capitalist-industrial manufacturing, respectively), while copyfarleft and workers councils are radical rejections of the contemporary situation in favor of another possible world.
The TKM, however, suffers from some troubling inaccuracies. The Creative Commons license, for instance, does not "expand the legal framework for producers to deny consumers the possibility to create use-value or exchange value out of the common stock" (34; my emphasis), as claimed. CC moves from an "all rights reserved" to a "some rights reserved" paradigm, and accordingly distributes licenses that reduce (from "all" to "some") the number of rights a producer of intellectual property reserves. In Kleiner's zeal to condemn a so-called teleliberal conspirator, he downplays the paradigm-shifting reformist critique embedded within CC's mission. He also passes over CC's signature innovation: a commitment to producing both a "common sense" version and a "legalese" version of their licenses, so that non-lawyers can easily understand exactly which of the copyrights they are reserving with each of the various licenses. Good luck deciphering the intricacies of TKM's Peer Production License.
A more troubling problem with the Peer Production License is the question of enforcement. What legal body will adjudicate the distinction between wage labor users and communard users? Are current legal bodies capable of enforcing class-based discrimination in intellectual property law? Similar questions can be raised for the Venture Commune. What sophisticated legal apparatus will adjudicate the complex rental agreements, bond auctions, and collateral guarantees that form the essence of the Venture Commune? What executive will enforce the firm's contracts?
One of Kleiner's stylistic choices may help contextualize the author's lack of concern for such questions. He tellingly does not title this document "The Manifesto of the Telekommunist Party", after Engels and Marx's original, because for Kleiner, there is no party. The TKM "forks" Marxism away from the Party and towards anarchism, and Kleiner's manifesto is, ultimately, an anarchist proposal against both state and party. This marks a significant difference between Kleiner and other contemporary Marxist theorists of network society like Jodi Dean who enthusiastically advocate the return of the party to center stage.
The TKM also suffers from some conspicuous absences and, at times, a shrill tone. Kleiner may sporadically give proper names to his distant antagonists, but he is at his most meticulously specific when enumerating those antagonists closest to him. At times, it seems as if the Creative Commons organization were more responsible for the injustices of the global intellectual property scheme than the World Trade Organization's 1994 TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which the TKM does not mention. One also imagines that Kleiner would like to delete his strange ad hominem attack on Eben Moglen (39), who by all accounts should be one of Kleiner's primary allies. It is also unclear why Kleiner does not engage other well-known "cyber-Marxists" like Nick Dyer-Witheford, or other critics of contemporary enclosure movements like the Midnight Notes Collective and Colectivo Situaciones.
Beyond these omissions, and the general weakness of the historical sections, the TKM is an important document. By focusing on issues of ownership and production, Kleiner elaborates a very important critique of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, weaving together the three strands of technological infrastructure, intellectual property, and cognitive labor. His goal is to reveal the Internet beneath the Web, and in this, he is successful. Venture Communism and Copyfarleft are valuable concepts inasmuch as they insist on the material elements of labor and production in network society; as pragmatic blueprints, they are more suggestive than useful.
The users of networks create the value therein. Accordingly, Kleiner reminds us that users themselves are the network's laborers. If we users do not maintain a watchful eye on the material value we users create, that value is liable to be exploited, and "the value created in the peer economy [will be] appropriated by property privilege" (21).
Barbrook and Cameron define the California Ideology as "a mix of cybernetics, free market economics and counter-culture libertarianism"; today it might also be recognized as the Silicon Valley strain of neoliberalism that favors technological determinism.
Kleiner does count Matteo Pasquinelli as among his collaborators, and he explicitly acknowledges Pasquinelli's influence on the TKM; Christian Marazzi, another Italian critic of cognitive capitalism and an early proponent of adapting the concept of "rent" to talk about the appropriation of immaterial labor, is not cited by name, but his influence marks Kleiner's text as well.
Although Kleiner writes extensively about the reproduction of the conditions of p2p network production, nowhere does he mention Louis Althusser's crucial "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" (1970), thus missing the critical question of whether or not the Internet itself is an ideological state apparatus.
Previously, this would have required a professional digital video camera and expensive editing software, or an editing system like the Avid; web hosting, coding skills, editing skills, a user base and/or advertising strategy to reach users, etc.
With the exception of Kleiner's extended engagements with Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, the TKM's historical section on copyright seems to ignore what has by now become the canon of critical interpretations of intellectual property and legal subjectivity in the European and North American tradition. A provisional attempt to name that canon: James Boyle's Shamans, Software & Spleens (1996); Roger Chartier's The Order of Books (1994); Rosemary Coombe's The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties (1998); Elisabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983); Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book (2000); Benjamin Kaplan's An Unhurried View of Copyright (1967); D.F. McKenzie's Making Meaning (2001); Mark Rose's Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1995); Siva Vaidhyanathan's Copyrights and Copywrongs (2001); and Woodmansee and Jaszi's The Construction of Authorship (1994). Two earlier essays, although not historically rigorous, have done much to set the tone of the copyright/authorship debate: Michel Foucault's "What Is an Author?" (1969) and Roland Barthes "The Death of the Author" (1968). Julie Cohen's Configuring the Networked Self (2012) is the most important recent English-language addition to that list, while the Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property reader (2010) promises to reframe the conversation in the register of economic justice.
"Revealing the Internet beneath the Web" could also be the slogan for Kleiner's "manifestos in code", such as the Thimbl project, a microblogging platform built from one of the original 1970s User Information protocols called Finger. In short: the tools necessary for Web-based microblogging services like Twitter were already built into the architecture of the early Internet, decades before Web 2.0, only they are decentralized and non-proprietary. See <http://www.thimbl.net/manifesto.html>.