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Hannes Gerhardt: From Capital To Commons

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Internet culture was bursting with hopeful experimentation and dreams of political emancipation. John Perry Barlow, the visionary digital activist, published a famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace that featured grandiose lines like: 

“Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel. I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind, on behalf of the future. I ask you ask you of the past to leave us alone. You were not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

For newcomers to the Internet, which at the time was most of us, these lines were a stirring glimpse of emancipation via the Internet. Given the giddy pace of disruptive socio-technical innovation at the time, they were also quite credible. If you are under 30, you probably don’t remember the excitement surrounding explosion of free and open source software, and especially Linux as a renegade operating system, and the rise of the blogosphere and wikis. Political insurgents everywhere were transfixed by the promise of BitTorrent and peer-to-peer file sharing as it leapfrogged over a stodgy, exploitative music industry. The reinvention of copyright law via Creative Commons licenses allowed ordinary people to legally authorize sharing of content, while countless other tech innovations facilitated novel forms of collaboration and sharing. 

Now that capitalism and nation-states have utterly domesticated and colonized the Internet as a commercial marketplace, Barlow’s manifesto comes off as terribly naïve (even though his contemporary peers, the crypto world, serve up similar blue-sky utopianism).

Let’s face it, the capitalist/state alliance has effectively contained and tamed user sovereignty on the Internet. Consider the geo-local surveillance of our online lives, social media’s algorithmic manipulations of our online feeds and of public opinion, campaigns of disinformation and hacking from the alt-right, Russia, and other rogue players, and corporate paywalls and national firewalls that are Balkanizing the once-unitary Web.

It was therefore refreshing to encounter From Capital to Commons: Exploring the Promise of a World Beyond Capitalism, a new book by Hannes Gerhardt, a professor of geography at the University of West Georgia (US). While Big Tech monopolies, compliant legislatures and intelligence agencies have crushed the soaring ideals that one prevailed in Internet and hacker cultures, Gerhardt bravely argues that there are still ways that commoning and technology could engineer a transition away from capitalism.

He calls his agenda “compeerism,” which is neither an ideology or strategic plan, but rather a commons-inspired perspective for actualizing post-capitalist possibilities. The first line of his book sums up his mission:  “What would it take for a commons-centered, collaborative form of production to supplant capitalism?”

To learn more about Gerhardt’s strategies for advancing commons in digital spaces, and in the biophysical world as well, I interviewed him in my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #42). 

Gerhardt has a firm grasp of the extensive literature on Internet culture over the past fifty years – the critiques, histories, and technical controversies. What distinguishes his book from many others about the Internet is his political acuity in assessing the challenges. He offers chapters on “democratizing infrastructure” such as the electric grid and the Internet itself, as well as on how to support “design global, manufacture local” production. Unlike many techies, Gerhardt is also mindful of the limits of the natural world, so he devotes space to localism, urban waste, and agriculture as a renewable resource.

Gerhardt also spends time discussing the problem of the state’s monopoly on money-creation with two chapters on “money and value.”  Since modern money-creation has been largely outsourced to private banks that create money out of thin air via their lending Gerhardt looks at decentralized, local cryptocurrencies that have some basic-income element, such as Circles, Mannabase, and SwiftDemand, while steering clear of speculative, capitalist ventures like Bitcoin. 

There are many more strategic opportunities for “commonizing” digital life than Gerhardt could possibly discuss. They would include weakening the proprietarian grip of copyright and patent laws, expanding antitrust interventions (see Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow’s Chokepoint Capitalism on this topic), and aggressively developing new commons-enabling protocols and platforms like Holochain. Still, it is invigorating to contemplate serious strategic initiatives in digital spaces that attempt to move beyond capitalism.

You can listen to my podcast interview with Hannes Gerhardt here.  A downloadable PDF transcript of the interview is here.

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