On "socialism": round II

There’s an interesting resistance (see the comments) to my resistance to Kevin Kelly’s description of (what others call) Web 2.0 as “socialism.” That resistance (to my resistance) convinces me my point hasn’t been made.

Confidence about my “ignorance” about political philosophy notwithstanding (and don’t tell my political philosophy tutor from Cambridge where I spent three years studying the stuff), my point is not that it is impossible to understand “socialism” as Kelly describes it. (Obviously, if a missile can be a “peacekeeper,” anything can be anything). It is not even that never in the history of “socialism” have people so understood it (there have of course been plenty of voluntary communities that have called themselves “socialist”). Instead, my argument against Kelly was about responsibility in language: How would the words, or label, he used be understood. Not after, as I said, reading “a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term.” Rather, how would it be understood by a culture that increasingly has the attention span of 140 characters?

In my view, the answer to that question is absolutely clear: “Socialist” would be associated with the dominant, modern vision of “socialism” which has, at its core, coercion. And as the Internet that Kelly and I celebrate doesn’t have “coercion” at its core, I maintain, it is not “socialist.”

In reading the reactions to my argument, however, I realize that in using the term “coercion” I was committing the same error that I was accusing Kelly of making. People associate the word “coercion” with Abu Ghraib or Stalin. And certainly, the “coercion” of socialism isn’t necessarily (or even often) that.

That’s fair. By “coercion” I meant simply law — that “socialism” is a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate. Again, I’m for that kind of coercion in lots of contexts. I’m for income redistribution (to some degree); I want better public schools, I want to force you to vaccinate your childeren, etc. So I didn’t mean anything necessarily negative by the term “coercion.” I meant something analytical: That Wikipedia, if it coerces, coerces differently from how 95% (of Americans) at least understand the term “socialism.”

Again, if you doubt that, think about American critics of “socialism”: None of them are complaining about people voluntarily choosing to associate however they choose to associate (except of course if they are gay). They are complaining about people being forced to associate in ways they don’t choose to associate. There’s nothing inconsistent with someone being a Right Wing (and anti-socialist) Republican yet working at a church soup kitchen every other Saturday. Those spheres are separate in the American mind. Because they are separate, one can choose to be a Wikipedian and see no inconsistency in voting for Ronald Reagan.

(But aren’t the “freely chosen obligations” often enforced (i.e., in my terms, “coerced”) by the state? Of course they are — as the Legal Realists and most recently Critical Legal Studies Movement worked very hard to remind us. But they had to work so hard because they were working against a very solid assumption about the sense of the term “coercion.” They wanted to change it. But they at least acknowledged there was something there to change.)

So my argument against Kelly is that it is wrong to use a term (in the context of a Wired essay at least; a philosophy seminar would invoke a completely different set of ethics) that would be so completely misunderstood. We choose our words. We don’t choose our meaning.

But if you’re still not convinced, then here’s a hypothetical that makes the same point. (And note, I’m being REALLY careful here — this is ONLY a hypothetical):

Imagine someone said Barack Obama’s economic policies were “fascist.” But by that the person didn’t mean the Fascism of the later German Nazi Party. He didn’t mean, that is, the racism that came to define the term. Instead, he meant the Fascism of the early National Socialist Party, or of their equivalent in Italy, or England, or the earliest of FDR’s administration.

My point is that however accurate it would be to describe the current “Czar” filled administrations with the centralizing and corporatist politics of the early 1930s, it would be unethical to call it “fascist.” The term has been marked, just as the name “Adolf” has been marked, and in mixed, attention deprived contexts, it is wrong to ignore that marking.

Secondly, and finally: Even if it weren’t, Kelly’s description would be wrong. Even if there were a useable concept (as opposed to a possible concept) of “voluntary socialism,” it would be wrong to describe what most think of as Web 2.0 as “socialist.” That again because of the part Kelly ignores. Sure, there’s a “sharing economy” as I describe in REMIX. That economy fits well with the Kibbutz or Wikipedia. And if you want to call that “socialist,” fine. But the “hybrid” economy is not that economy. The Facebooks and Twitters and Flickrs and Yelps! are not entities engaged in a global urge to hug. They are companies that promise investors a huge return from their very risky investment. To do that, of course, they need to behave differently from the dominant mode of, say, Hollywood lawyers. But if they behave like Gandhi, they’re not going to succeed at their mission — which is (however much “change the world” or “don’t be evil” is in the plan) to make money. Those people are not “socialists” (except in the corrupted sense that defines the term in many places today). Those people are members of a hybrid economy. What Tim calls “Web 2.0.” And while I can well understand that someone would feel “torture,” as Kelly puts it, using that term (I don’t feel it, but who am I dictate to Kelly), the fear of that torture doesn’t justify this violation of the ethics of language. The freedom of Wikipedia et al., is threatened enough. We don’t need to throw the baggage of “socialism” into the bargain.

This entry was posted in bad code, free culture. Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to On "socialism": round II

  1. “By “coercion” I meant simply law — that “socialism” is a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate. […] So I didn’t mean anything necessarily negative by the term “coercion.””

    Larry, how can this argument be sustained (for as long as you’re trying to do that)? If “coercion” is simply law, doesn’t capitalism also REQUIRE law to operate? (In fact, wasn’t modern capitalism brought about in part through the coercion of Britain’s enclosures acts, which expropriated common lands, turning them into private property, and evicted their users, forcing them to find employment in cities, etc.?) Isn’t socialism, according to most dictionaries from Oxford and Merriam Webster to dictionaries of political philosophy, a tradition of managing collectively held resources — which, for socialists, means something like “the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate”? When Einstein (not a political philosopher, but not a dimwit either) wrote that socialism was a way of “overcom[ing] and advanc[ing] beyond the predatory phase of human development,” i.e. capitalism (as he perceived it), and when the Socialist International’s 170+ political parties and organizations, including Britain’s ruling Labour Party, Australia’s ruling Labour Party, France’s once ruling Socialist Party, Canada’s NDP, et al, define the unifying vision of socialism as that of “a peaceful and democratic world society combining freedom, justice and solidarity”, are we supposed to reject these and instead take up the definition used by a bunch of loud right-wing American conservatives? Why should digital culture, of all things, be restricted in such a way?

    I think it’s ultimately much more productive for us to try to address Kevin’s challenge: “Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging.” What should we call the type of governance mechanisms that are evolving (in fits and starts) at every level from the local to the national to the global, from peer pressure and the institutionalization of accepted practice to enforceable regulations? They are neither purely capitalist nor purely socialist (just as most socially viable nation-states today are, economically, mixtures of both). They have something to do with nested systems of collective monitoring and adaptive governance, with mixtures of rights and obligations, checks and balances, consumer and citizen models of selfhood, individual and collective forms of behavior, etc. If there isn’t an accepted word to describe them, shouldn’t it be our task to test the words we have for their appropriateness and try to find better ones? Redefining socialism as “coercion” doesn’t really help us with that.

  2. Time for Political Theory

    Even if this post was originally meant to be a debate about the responsible use of words, what is becoming very clear in this debate that it is time for a broad discussion on the political theory of networks. All the constitutive texts of our network societies (think all Lessig-books, Castells Network Society, KKs new rules, Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, David Post’s Jefferson’s Moose, Zittrains, the end of the Internet, etc.), do not openly admit that they are political theory, therefore, we are at a loss for words, when we want to speak about governance in network society: Calling networked governance socialism falls short, but so does a call for the responsible use of language.

  3. Phil P says:

    I think it’s ultimately much more productive for us to try to address Kevin’s challenge: “Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging.”

    “Participatory democracy”?

  4. This all reminds me of the whole “libertarian paternalism” debacle. Isn’t this modestly dirigiste version of classical liberalism? You need to label your views in some way that people can latch onto without being misled. Okay so socialism isn’t the right context. What then?

    Unless I’m way off base, I’m thinking you’re reaching for a version of the classical liberalism described by Hayek in *The Constitution of Liberty* — order that emerges organically amidst within an environment with modest constraints constituted by the state. By the way, why make coercion coextensive with law? There are plenty of non-legal norms that are more coercive in the common everyday sense of the word coercive than some legal norms.

  5. skfd says:

    > In my view, the answer to that question is absolutely clear: “Socialist” would be associated with the dominant, modern vision of “socialism” which has, at its core, coercion.
    In your country. In other countries “Capitalism” associated with coercion and socialism with free culture, ok.

  6. Anyway a curious few may be interested in checking out Kevin Carson’s “Free Market Anti-Capitalist” blog. Another attempt to redefine categories with some affiinities to the present discussion.


  7. Jordan Pollard says:

    So is your biggest concern terminology?

    I feel that as humans, it is one of our prime beauties to be able to dictate and define our terms. While I can understand not wanting to affiliate with tainted ideas or words, does it mean we should walk away from it? I guess I don’t recoil from it because I realize that its only a word, and we should have the power over what it means in how we may want to use it. Certainly there will be many people ready to jump at its use, and abuse it to smear or hinder progress, but isn’t that the whole labeling group what we are trying to move away from?

    I think there are many similarities to what we see evolving and aspects of socialism. Not to make it even more flammable, but Marx thought that communism was a later evolved form of humanity, and what we are seeing has “communistic” aspects that have evolved as well. The biggest difference to the new phenomena, as stated before, is the voluntary aspect of it.

    I think that fearing terms (not saying that you are) only says that words coined are doomed to failure if they ever fail. Since I think we are moving ever more towards a scientific process of living that constantly evolves due to trial and error(failure), that we have to call a spade a spade (science shouldn’t be biased to results), and work to fix or update terminology that still works for what we are describing instead of the constant creation of new terms to define something we already have defined and now updated.

    Great debate!

  8. ChristianK says:

    I think that it’s a bit about the ownership of words.
    In the US the right wing think tanks have defined words like ‘socalisim’ and ‘liberal’ for everyone.
    I think that it’s a big mistake of the left to simply accept those definitions instead of defining their words themselves.

    A movements gets it’s power from it’s ability to provoke.

  9. Prokofy Neva says:

    No, comrade, no, no, no.

    Socialism isn’t a system enforced by law. Not at all. You never really understood law, despite everything.

    Socialism defies law. It is legal nihilism. It does not subject itself to the rule of law. It is the coercive rule of ideology, of idealized states. Rule-by-law — and there are always lots of them in socialist states — is not law.

    Socialism is crime, because it says the end justifies the means, which is unlawful.

    P.S. I’m glad Kelly finally came clean on naming the thing what it is — next year, he’ll admit it’s communism! Like Joi Ito already does, calling himself a “venture communist”.

  10. Prokofy Neva says:

    But if they behave like Gandhi, they’re not going to succeed at their mission — which is (however much “change the world” or “don’t be evil” is in the plan) to make money. Those people are not “socialists” (except in the corrupted sense that defines the term in many places today). T

    You’re so wrong about this.

    Let’s take Mark Zuckerberg, who won’t sell out, won’t valuate, who tells Lacy that it isn’t really about the money, who really just wants to run a movement with millions of people and himself in charge. That’s socialism, in spades.

    Let’s take Craig Newmark, who says he doesn’t want to get rich, who in fact behaves like Gandhi, who says he evens the revenue from the escort ads to charities, who floats around from one wacky Web 2.0 conference to another. Utopian, socialist — all over the place.

    Let’s take Pierre Omidyar. Soak the middle class on ebay, then give to the poor and the deserving NGOs! And why not? Hardly a capitalist formula!

    Really, your challenge is to try to extract anything remotely resembling capitalism from any of these Web 2.0 tycoons, regardless of their personal wealth, cars, vacations, etc. Because they are all ideologues, and they all want a better world, and they all want everybody to follow those ideas due to ideological correctness, and they believe fervently they are right.

  11. Natanael L says:

    ” Rather, how would it be understood by a culture that increasingly has the attention span of 140 characters?”

    Sure, I use Twitter, but I will still read whatever you throw at me to read.
    … But all those other comments are too much for me to read right now. 😉

    And I agree that too many words have been marked and accosiated with many different kinds of irrelevant things. Too many words have been marked as negative for no good reason.

    I hear about socialism being a bad thing more and more often even here in Sweden.
    As if it would be bad for the goverment to provide the people with health care payed by taxes. If you want competition, then why not? Why shouldn’t the goverments [whatever] be able to exist side by side with private [whatever]?
    Don’t tell me “it harms competition”, because then you ignore the good effects for the public. If you mean that private companies could do things the goverments companies don’t, then why are you so eager to blaim the goverment for failing? Isn’t it the public who have choosen the better option for them, then?

    And I don’t call myself anything. I don’t think of myself as socialist, capitalist or anything. I’m just saying that everything can exist at the same time. Why should the ideologies compete when there’s nothing to compete about? Why mark words for no good reason?

  12. If I can try to boil down some of this to, err, 140 characters or so, I think it’s:

    Socialism is a form of real government, which has a police force. Net projects aren’t real government. And “socialism” is a very inflammatory word.

    However, one problem you’re running straight into, is all the marketing and punditry that’s been dedicated to fogging over the distinction between real government and the rules of some big Net role-playing games (I include Wikipedia here).

    And another problem is the inflammatory connotation is part of the point, for attention-value. I mean, the article’s sidebar is technohype that’s self-parody (e.g. Old Socialism: “Harsh penalties for criticizing leaders” vs New Socialism: “Passionate opinions on the Huffington Post”)

  13. Sergei says:

    Firstly, I would like to note that I am only 16 and therefore may not possess the required experience to make political comments of any sort. Secondly, I will admit that I did not read any of the comments as I did not feel I had the time (exams are on the 18 of June and I haven’t even started my two Independent study units–I procrastinate too much, and get distracted). I will also admit that I read your last article in a more cursory fashion that I normally would have, but it seems to me, from both articles that you are negative about socialism, my question is whether (which is the answer I think I’ll get) or not you actually see socialism as a negative thing (the alternative being that you are just reflecting what you feel is the American view of socialism). Now, my problem is that I simply do not agree with the ideas that socialism is negative and that socialism requires coercion (positive as the results may be). It is certainly possible, I think that because I both live in Canada and am very left-leaning (some of my friends call me a communist despite the fact that I have explained to them that I am quite aware that giving all the wealth and power of a nation to a select few [who’s job it is to redistribute that wealth and power, and yes, I know the square brackets come before the curved brackets] is a completely undesirable form of government, because politicians, by nature are corrupt, save a select few, who are often, at least in my country, discouraged from speaking out and verbally abused in that way that politicians do, just look at the net neutrality debate{woohoo, I get to break the brackets rule again, *and* make a run-on sentence at the same time! Then again I have very little love for the politicians of my country, or any other country for that matter, save again, for the few} that I am simply less likely to buy into the idea that socialism is negative or requires coercion. I hope that my post makes sense, that its not too boring, and that it made at least some contribution to the discussion you’re having.

  14. Kevin Kelly says:

    I remain baffled by Lessig’s upsetness about my usage of socialism, but I have such genuine and deep respect for him (he is a hero of mine) that I take his concern seriously. In this post he focuses more on the duties of word use, rather than on the word I used, so I will follow that a bit. The core belief seems to be:

    “We chose our words. We don’t choose our meanings.”

    This is true to some extent, but the meanings of words obviously change. Usually they change as a result of mild, almost imperceptible changes in meanings by many anonymous users over time. The list of English words that have shifted meaning — sometimes to their opposite – is long. Surely Lessig would not call these “irresponsible.”

    Then perhaps he is upset with deliberate engineering of new meanings. This also is common. Advertisers do it, so do poets. Shakespeare excelled at doing this. Journalists do it (that’s where I learned about it), and so do spin masters, politicians, and anyone trying to make something happen. If Lessig is saying that any deliberate shift in meaning in a word is wrong, I would have to disagree. But maybe he is not saying that.

    Maybe he is saying that what is irresponsible is a huge shift, a saltation, an unnatural gap, or jump in meaning. If the meaning of a word is moved too much, or redefined to an “excessive” degree, then that harms the commons. Again, I can think of harmless examples of deliberate large shifts in meaning, so if that is what bugs him, we can air the evidence.

    But maybe it is something else. The only remaining possibility I could imagine is that it is specifically the term “socialism,” that is the problem, a word which, as I admitted from the start, is a very loaded word. So maybe Lessig is arguing that messing with the meaning of loaded words is irresponsible, because, well they are loaded, as in a gun. But if that were true then he is saying that there are some words that are taboo. There are some words (maybe like hate words) that we should not re-define, not shift in meaning, not mess with. These taboo words have bad karma, or the coodies, and they should not be used outside of the meanings they have acquired. Some folks believe that derogatory taboo words, as in racial epithets, can only be redefined by the insulted. So self-identifying socialists would be the only ones allowed to redefine “socialism”! If this is what he means, I also reject that.

    If that is not what he means, than I don’t know what he means.

  15. James Street says:

    I think Larry is concerned about a possible repeat of socialist/communist witch hunts and purges which occurred in the United States during the post World War II period and before that, during the World War I period. But, I think defining his position as NOT socialistic, while correct, is beside the point. The real task of modern intellectuals is the task of effectively confronting coercive corporate and state tactics designed to stop political/social/economic experiments such as Wikipedia. The wealthy don’t care about ideas or social movements but they don’t want to lose their money and power. When they see anything that resembles a nexus of growing economic/political power they move to stamp it out. When the Robber Barons took economic power from the generation that followed the period of our Founding Fathers, the genteel class could only look down on their bad manners but they could not stop them. The new economic model that is arising from the latest wave of technology will replace the old one, and its up to intellectuals to embrace it and defend it from its rear guard enemies.

  16. @kevin kelly – are you really baffled (as opposed to that being rhetorical) as to why Lessig’s upset? I thought the reasoning was pretty clear, if in academese at times. 140 character version, it’s:

    1) Wrong, since it’s a severe misuse of the term.
    2) Very irritating, since it feeds into the endless Red-baiting.

    That seems unbaffling.

    “Again, I can think of harmless examples of deliberate large shifts in meaning, so if that is what bugs him, we can air the evidence.”

    C’mon. http://news.google.com/news?q=socialism

  17. Prokofy Neva says:


    Re: “Socialism is a form of real government, which has a police force. Net projects aren’t real government. And “socialism” is a very inflammatory word.”

    No, socialism is an ideology that some governments and movements become infected with, and you don’t need to have a state or government to have a totalitarian force that utterly rules people’s lives. The Taliban isn’t a state as such.

    Code is a weapon. Of course every single social media site has a “police force” which consists of the numerous filters, blocks, bans, mutes, etc. That *is* the police force. Just about every site has a highly arbitrary TOS that makes it possible to be banned “for any reason or no reason”.

    Socialism isn’t really “inflammatory”. In Europe and Eurasia no one hesitates to use this very word on political parties, clubs, newspapers, projects, etc. But it is known as a failed system. In the U.S, it has a certain allergenic component for some people — usually those with socialist ideas who refuse to admit them because they think they will lose followers then.

    They’re right.

  18. Prokofy Neva says:

    >I think Larry is concerned about a possible repeat of socialist/communist witch hunts and purges which occurred in the United States during the post World War II period and before that, during the World War I period.

    A key problem with fearing to use these terms merely because there were witch hunts is that there were witch hunts — wrong as they were — for a reason. The people hunted were believed to possess an ideology which was already proving to be used to massacre millions of people in the Soviet Union.

    It’s not just that communists were somehow dissidents with unpopular views. They were people who, whether out of sincerity, naivety, or conspiracy, aligned themselves with Moscow. What the Kremlin was busy doing during this period was invading countries, killing even communists and social democrats, massacring its own people in huge numbers, running slave labour crews in the GULAG and so on.

    It’s not like communists just had a different idea about having workers get more pay for their work. They were associated with the most murderous ideology of the century. And so it’s ok to question that ideology and denounce it.

    There isn’t any danger of any witch hunts of any socialists now in the U.S, that’s silly, when socialists have helped put their chosen president in the White House, whatever his own coyness about his own views, and when the government is busy nationalizing certain industries. If anything, the problem remains of endlessly invoking the fake threat of “witch hunts” to shut up very necessary criticism of both historical communism and latter-day technocommunism.

  19. There are those who are upset not only with government-decreed auto fuel standards but also with activists holding up signs and bumper stickers trying to persuade others to buy the Prius and fluorescent light bulbs. There’s a certain kind of conservative philosophy that is probably threatened as much by the Prius as they are actual fiats from the state. The idea that I might get up and persuade a bunch of people to change their ways according to my agenda is indistinguishable from a Marxist revolution to these folk. It has roots in paganism’s “As Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”, although fundamentalist Christians might be susceptible to this philosophy.

    The CC license program does not force anyone to give up rights at the hands of an angry mob or jack-booted thugs. It encourages content creators to do something other than aggressively, greedily pursue self interest. Godspeed your movement.

    Nonviolent calls to voluntary join communitarian movements are going to be called “socialist” by mean people.


  20. Kevin Kelly writes:
    “So maybe Lessig is arguing that messing with the meaning of loaded words is irresponsible, because, well they are loaded, as in a gun.”

    And Seth Finkelstein replies that Lessig is simply arguing that Kevin’s redefinition of socialism is
    “1) Wrong, since it’s a severe misuse of the term.
    2) Very irritating, since it feeds into the endless Red-baiting.”

    But as many commenters here have pointed out, Kelly’s definition is not “wrong”; it’s provocative and has at least a certain validity within limits. Lessig’s redefinition of socialism, on the other hand, is more wrong than Kelly’s, because it follows a small minority’s (American conservatives’) redefinition of the word and denies the large majority’s definition of the word (i.e. that found in dictionaries, encyclopedias, historical treatises, self-identified socialists’ writings, etc.). It’s also disingenuous of Lessig to argue that Kelly is changing the definition of socialism while Lessig – and those whose precedent he follows here – isn’t.

    But in a strictly American context Lessig’s argument makes sense, so Finkelstein’s #2, I think, is accurate. The problem, and I think many of the comments here reflect this, is that Kelly and Lessig are addressing two different scales: Kelly is addressing the global phenomenon of digital culture (etc.), while Lessig is addressing a strictly American political context where using the word “socialism” is a risky way of characterizing anything. But even in that American context the connotations of that word are changing, partly because it’s being used by discredited right-wingers (who most Americans know are on the political fringes now) to try to discredit Obama (who, I suspect, is no more of a socialist than Lessig, but who at least has the guts not to fear such rhetorical games). So it’s not clear to me that Lessig’s fear is warranted. It makes for an interesting debate, but I hope that the discussion will return to the phenomenon Kelly was attempting to describe – because that’s ultimately more interesting.

  21. I should have qualified my point #2 with “In the US …”

    But note, the defense that “socialism” has other meanings in other parts of the world fails, because the article is specifically referencing in part the inflammatory, negative, US definition. That’s all through the text, and in the self-parody sidebars (“Socialism: A History”, “The Old
    Socialism / The New Socialism”)

    Lessig is not redefining, Kelly is – for heaven’s sake, that’s directly in the text – what is “The Old Socialism / The New Socialism” but a redefinition?

    And again this redefinition is nonsense (to the extent that words have meaning), because whether you want to express it as The State, police force, coercion – a country is not a software project (the hype and hubris of conflating these two should be a big warning sign!).

  22. pareidoliac says:


    On the rhetoric of “socialism” and “web 2.0” http://is.gd/Pvio worth many more tweet-conversations this 1

    Characterizations of Web 2.0 as a renaissance of ‘socialism’ are misguided in their simplism regarding political-economic organizing

  23. Here is my article on the silliness of ideological semantics due to, what I label as, childlike binary thought…


  24. I think it’s SO AWESOME that you’re writing about this, because I’m a huge fan and I think you’re doing a lot of great things. Thanks for the whole package. On the other hand, I have to say, as I did with Kelley, that I both agree and disagree with your thoughts.

    I wrote a pretty thorough blog post replying to Kelley’s article, called “The New Socialism Looks Suspiciously Like The Old Socialism”, found here: http://www.youngradical.com/2009/05/the-new-socialism-sounds-suspiciously-like-the-old-socialism/

    But I’d like to respond to your particular ideas as well. As with Kelley, I think that you’ve misinterpreted (and most people do, thanks to Stalin, Mao, Castro and McCarthyism) the intention and original definition of socialism. Your assertions that socialism is “a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate” and that “voluntary socialism” is essentially an oxymoron indicate that you and I have very different definitions of socialism.

    The “socialist/communist” states under Stalin and Mao were horrifying regimes run by dictators – they were state capitalist, not socialist. Dictators in the last century have made a bad habit of claiming to be socialist in order to garner support. So we can throw those societies away as examples of socialism.

    Of the many types of people that consider themselves socialist today, I would consider myself first and foremost a Marxist. Marxist socialism, by definition, requires the will of the people even to exist – he believed that true socialism cannot exist without a bottom-up revolution (not top-down as in the case of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s Cuba). The purpose of socialism is to put the needs of people before the desire for profit by putting the people in power. Many successful but short-lived socialist societies in history organized like the Russians did in 1917, into “soviets” or committees from the local to national level.

    Personally this sounds like a pretty great way to “choose autonomously to associate” to me. I would more likely choose a system in which I had a lot of involvement in my community and in figuring out how society could best meet the needs of people rather than live in a system where the wealthy and powerful generally decide how everything works for us. But that’s just me.

    So I disagree Mr Lessig, with your assertion that social software should not be called “socialist” because social software is not inherently coercive.

    I do agree however that it’s inappropriate to call some of these endeavors “socialist” because they are inherently capitalist. In my blog post, I distinguish between not-for-profit open source projects and social platforms like facebook and flickr, because in the latter case, a minority at the top still stands to benefit greatly from the efforts of the majority at the bottom. I would argue though, that the business model of social software is even more successful than most capitalist businesses – because the workers do the labor for free!

    In conclusion, I REALLY appreciate hearing you touch upon this subject. However, I also wish people would look more deeply into the history of socialism (especially now that everyone is talking about it again), and the perspectives of people who actually consider themselves Marxist socialists (I would recommend http://www.socialistworker.org). It is admittedly, a very hard task because like the term “feminist”, there are so many different definitions, and a history that continually clashes with mainstream ideas.

  25. Wooster says:

    One could argue that Web 2.0 is not socialistic in the traditional sense of socialism, nor is it socialistic in that it serves a purpose to help the working class. But that is totally messing Kelly’s point, I think, which is this is a new kind of socialism. I think Kelly is wrong, because socialism is not socialism if it does not benefit the majority and if it does not have a goal toward improving democracy. What we are seeing is a form of alienation. There is collectivism toward things that really don’t improve our democracy (at least not explicitly or directly). Because we feel like we no longer gain power, via collectively, through our government, we dedicate our time and efforts to a “feeling” of collectivism and making change in often trivial ways. When, in reality, these collectivist people are subservient to corporate institutions, who may not serve their best interests. And these people, though collectively working together on certain projects, are alienated in separate parts of the world and are not connected in any common goal, besides that of their project. I’m not sure if even Karl Marx could have predicted this kind of alienation.

    It is a worse argument to say one should not use the word socialism because it is controversial. Ironically, Lessig paints socialism as totalitarian, but he is the one essentially promoting a censorship of the word. Why? Because American propaganda says socialism is bad.

    So, socialism is now coercion. Then, by that logic, Capitalism is freedom. One has to wonder: how is this any different than the Ministry of Truth, written in Orwell’s 1984. If you allow words to become the opposite of what they mean. You essentially make them meaningless.

    Socialism is a people’s movement against the ruling class. Has it been misused for terrible atrocities? Yes! But so has democracy, freedom, peace, and security. One should not abandon these principles because another person tarnished them. If anything, it provides all the more reasons to defend them.

  26. John Drinkwater says:

    England is not Britain, please don’t confuse the two.

  27. David P says:

    I think skfd raises a good point by mentioning that socialism means different things in different countries, that further complicates the problem of deciding whether or not to associate with the word. I think I agree with your central point, that “socialist” is poisonous as a term in the majority of our society (not necessarily as a practice) but wonder at your willingness to immediately jump ship and look for another term. While I agree with the decision (reassigning meanings requires massive public shifts in perception, and people don’t care to be activists) I wonder what courses of action are possible than just calling the movement “goodstuffian” as opposed to “socialist.”

  28. Three years’ study of political philosophy appears not to have been sufficient to ground your understanding of socialism. Take it from someone who (a) is socialist, and (b) has taught philosophy.

    Let’s look at the definition.

    “That’s fair. By ‘coercion’ I meant simply law — that “socialism” is a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate.”

    This definition works by defining systems of law into those “the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate.” (presumably, ‘capitalist’?) and those contrary to that.

    The counterfactual in the middle of that definition is one big dodge. What would constitute the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate?”

    If we look at the way people associate when there is no law, we get some indication. Robbery, looting, murder, gangs of thugs, piracy, and the rest – as we see, for example, in Somalia.

    Certainly, we can assert that *some* people would choose to associate in that way. Otherwise the laws – all laws – would not be necessary.

    But surely it isn’t ‘socialism’ to have laws enforced that prohibit Robbery, looting, murder, gangs of thugs, piracy, and the rest ? Wouldn’t that be an overly broad definition of socialism? Otherwise, our contrary (capitalism?) is the system of government that allows robbery, looting, murder, gangs of thugs, piracy, and the rest.

    Well – that might not be that far off.

    More seriously, how do we establish “the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate?” If it is not a question of how any and all humans would so choose, perhaps it is some subset. Like, say, a ‘majority’ then?

    But this can’t be it either. Because then, by definition, any socialist government elected by a majority would, upon taking office, cease to be socialist.

    No, the definition at work here of “”the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate” must be some kind of undefined naturalism. Some sort of appear to the way humans are ‘naturally’, even if this is not always instantiated in systems of laws or even majority governments.

    But this definition will not work either. People ‘naturally’ (whatever that means) band together to support each other and eliminate threats. The basis of socialism is, indeed, legislation to take action against “robbery, looting, murder, gangs of thugs, piracy, and the rest.”

    Modern socialism is a bit more than such a mutual self-defense pact, in that it defines the ills that assail society more broadly. Modern socialism recognizes that unfair trade practices, monopoly industries, prejudice and discrimination, inequity and poverty, etc., are the modern equivalents of the evils that used to plague society. That the robber of old became the robber-baron of the industrial age became the ponzi scheme artist and influence-peddler of today.

    The term ‘coerce’ in the definition is meaningless. If it refers to ‘a system of law’ as this current definition proposes, then it is indistinguishable from the laws used by the capitalists to legally rob the poor. No, it was intended, in its original use, for the connotations the word contains. The use of ‘coerce’ was deliberately intended to evoke some sense of force, and not merely law, as those socialism must be imposed, and never elected.

    The connotations and sloppy argumentation continue in this post, with the reference to “95 percent of Americans” (first, totally unsubstantiated, second, irrelevant in a global society, and third, an illegitimate appeal to popularity), the mention of “national socialism”.

    None of this is intended to defend Kelly. It is nothing more than a defence of socialism from a naive and propaganda laden mis -characterization.

  29. Paul Charles Leddy says:

    all i have to say: frightening

  30. Tim says:

    I am so glad to read the response above by Stephen Downes.

    As an Australian, I’m often struck by the way that American culture is often so blind to how other cultures think, feel, and express themselves. The American understanding of what constitutes socialism is such a dilution – and it’s such a shame.

  31. Nick says:

    In the American context, when we talk about socialism, we usually mean statism. The boundary between socialism in its nascent (pure?) form (workers control of production) and statism is very much blurred in today’s context, and Lessig is right in that “socialism” as used today in the American context connonates (and usually means) a level of (state directed) coercion beyond a certain traditional American baseline. Whether or not this is good or falls apart under critical analysis really doesn’t matter to how the term is commonly understood here: the idea that wikipedia is “socialist” in an American context doesn’t really work IMO.

  32. Jan Hansen says:

    @Stephen Downes good post.

    Your readiness to accept and propagate negative connotations of socialism is disappointing.

    West Wing season 7. Santos vs. Vinnick debate.

    I know you like to use that word ‘liberal’ as if it were a crime.

    No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have used that word. I know Democrats think liberal is a bad word. So bad you had to change it. What do you call yourselves now, progressives? Is that it?

    It’s true. Republicans have tried to turn liberal into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country.

    A Republican President ended slavery.

    Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party. What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I’ll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, ‘Liberal,’ as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.

    In the minds of many people around the world socialists have played much the same role as liberals portrayed in the above scene and as such we feel betrayed when you so eagerly want to distance yourself from that term.

  33. There is one elegant solution to this whole debate, which bypasses the use of socialism and its controversies (just to be clear, socialism comes in different versions, both authoritarian and libertarian, but all share a theoretical preference for equality, not just of opportunity, but in practice), and most of all, how the term has become so ideologically loaded as to preclude rational discussion.

    The solution is to objectively describe what is happening, i.e. free self-aggregation of individuals around common goals and value creation, while bypassing, but not being necessarily opposed, the use of the state or corporate form to achieve this. The best term for this is peer to peer. Such choices have an underlying ethos, which invovles the open and free, participatory and commons oriented value systems or paradigms, but can be expressed politically in various ways, both left and libertarian and liberal and even conservative. It all depends on the importance you place on peer to peer aggregation in the overall scheme of things, for example subservient to the market, or better than the market. The P2P Foundation has been created to document, research and promote peer to peer alternatives, as described by Kevin Kelly. The relation to socialism is that it also represents a practice aimed at greater equality, though the practical choices are best described as equipotentiality, but other political traditions carry these values as well, and peer to peer does not mean an adherence to this particular political agenda. So I believe Kevin Kelly was mistaken in chosing the term, Larry correct in questioning it, but unfortunately, with the dominant misunderstandings of that tradition that are prevalent in the U.S., which has made other political choices in its political history, opposed to its ‘socialist’ competitor, and therefore driven by the need to mischaracterize and demonize it.

    Michel Bauwens, http://blog.p2pfoundation.net

  34. “Again, if you doubt that, think about American critics of “socialism”: None of them are complaining about people voluntarily choosing to associate however they choose to associate (except of course if they are gay)…”

    Or union members.
    That’s as far as I got. You measure the world by what you know and call it reason.
    Janteloven is indoctrination and coercion and so is American individualism.
    Kelly’s socialism is the socialism of ants: the state isn’t making people do the same things and behave the same way, people are doing both because they’ve devolved into carbon copies of one another. It’s blindly following the mass rather than blindly following the leader. Are there actually any good photographs on flicker? Flicker isn’t culture its the end of culture. It’s the intellectualism of McDonalds.

    There’s not such thing as freedom. There’s choice is between responsible awareness and stupidity.

  35. If you don’t like Socialism then don’t expect the US military to protect you and do not go to your public library, nor call the police and fire departments, nor drink your tap water, nor drive on your local streets and highways. Everyone of the previous agencies gets paid for by your taxes and the government runs them.

    Mr. Lessig, your donor strike appears excellent! I have a variation on this and I hope you will get people to sign these petitions.

    The Liberal Democratic Party of the United States functions as a progressive legislative political party.

    We do not run candidates for office. We usually support candidates of the Democratic party of the United States.

    We do not handle money and we do not charge money for membership and we do not raise money.

    So you can join our party and still remain a a member of the Democratic, Green, Labor, or other progressive party you belong to.

    Instead we create referenda on legislation by boycott petitions where we target the companies which sell consumer products and associate themselves with conservatives. We demand that these company CEOs get the legislation that we want and until that happens our members send letters to these companies indicating we will boycott them.

    Why do we use boycotts? Well I hope if Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, or Mohandas Gandhi appeared alive today that they would advocate boycotts of the friends of those who oppose our legislation, in a climate where those who donate money to office holders exercise too much influence over legislation.

    Please sign these petitions on single payer health care.



    Also sign these petitions.






  36. Mill-ish says:

    “enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate.”

    That is question begging retoric rather than serious argument.

    To see the problem clearer, ask yourself: what is capitalism? It is a system enforced by law by the invention of private property law and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate and use the natural resources of our common world if those laws where not in place. It is, with your terms, a system of coercion.

    Tool for diagnosing what you’re trying and failing to do:

    And the fact that the thing formerly known as Web 2.0 has some market driven components does not in itself invalidate socialism as a fitting term. If enought other components of the thing fit well with features ascribable as socialist then the label might all things considered be correct. In comparison, many talk about “capitalist systems” as a convenient shorthand despite the fact that all existing such systems have many forms of redistributive schemes and state organized services in place. KK seemed to me to aim for the main theme things to come and then socialism is indeed a contender for a fitting organizing concept.

  37. Dan says:


    I honestly haven’t been reading this whole thread, but my first reaction was:

    Many of these folks are just taking a direct or indirect lead from Frank Luntz’s playbook on how conservatives should talk about politics. It’s not about anything intellectual at all, merely an attempt to invoke the tired old “common sense” frames that remain at large in peoples’ brains from the last 30 years.

    Getting caught up in evaluating the actual meaning of the concepts is in some sense beside the point. They are trying to connect people and ideas with concepts that evoke emotional responses in political discourse and ultimately in the voting booth. (Go back and re-read some Lakoff.) It’s hardly more than trash talk.

    It reminds me a little bit of your approach to Eldred, when you relied on principle rather than on tangible results (you described it as something like a swing-and-a-miss at a softball comment during questioning). You’re playing the intellectual game, but these folks are often playing the political rhetoric game.

    While there can be some connections between these two games, I would say don’t take it too much to heart. Stick to restating the essence of your position, with the right associations, and don’t fall into their terminology which just reinforces their words in peoples’ brains.

  38. Jess Austin says:

    Adrian Ivakhiv, Stephen Downes, Mill-ish:

    You’re educated guys but you need to work on your reading comprehension. Lessig isn’t claiming that capitalism or any other political/economic system is free of coercion. He’s only saying that the internet is (mostly). When you violate an RFC, you don’t lose your freedom. Sure, you might lose some data, fail to complete an operation, or suffer the criticism of the digerati. That ain’t the same as going to jail.

    Lessig further posits that, lacking coercion, Web 2.0 can’t be socialist. I’m not sure I follow him that far, but if you want to show that it can’t be capitalist, you’ve set yourself a much harder task. I see elements of both systems, as well as elements of much more interesting things.

    In fact, because I love to disturb people who don’t wish to be associated with discredited political theories, I think the internet is far more anarchist than it is either capitalist or socialist. (Since we’re all wearing our allegiances on our sleeves, let me be clear that I find that a _good_ thing.)

  39. Antonio says:

    I’m not a natural English tongue so sorry for the errors

    I think that there is the risk to identify socialism with everything that could be classified as “a good thing” or an “humanitarian way to live the own life”, or with everything that sounds charitable or that is did with the aim to share something with someone else. In this case I think that socialism is not the proper word because there are people who do all these kind of things every day without the need to call themselves socialists.

    Socialism, like capitalism, is identified by a set of laws. I think, more precisely, that the main difference between socialism and capitalism is the way to distribute among people the sum of collective goods: a distribution based on market and free enterprise (capitalism) or a distribution based on the set of laws that Lessig called “coercion” (socialism, that is different from communism, I know). After that, everyone can give his own meaning of that word, but in that case everyone is speaking using a word whose meaning is not well specified and is clear to himself but not to others, and everyone can coin his own “socialism” that matches with his own vision of the perfect world. But words are import and they should be use carefully.

    For example all the free software movement, following this way of thinking, should be classified as socialism, but I think that free software is not socialism, even if it leads to community and voluntary cooperation. In fact, as Stallmann explain, the free software movement embodies the American Way, and I don’t think that the American way could be defined socialism. This is only one example, but there are many examples like that. I think that the identification of free software with socialism could be harmful for the movement, and not because socialism is a bad concept.

  40. Coises says:

    Dear Professor Lessig,

    Please consider your use of the term “corruption.” Consider the immediate impact of that word, and estimate how much explanation a reader with “an attention span of 140 characters” must digest to understand what you actually mean.

    Now ask yourself why you use that word; then consider again why some use the term “socialism” to describe the emerging ethic of the digital commons.

    Also remember that the origins of Libertarian Socialism are roughly contemporary with those of the better-known statist forms of socialism; neither has a convincing claim to exclusive use of the term.

  41. Dan Hind says:

    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.

  42. Andy McDonald says:

    @Michel Bauwens: I totally agree that the term Peer-to-Peer is a better for what is happening because it effectively remains agnostic as to the nature of the network. My PhD research seeks to apply the plethora of overlapping themes (eg: wikinomics, collective intelligence, mass collaboration, etc) and after much consideration, I feel that Peer-to-Peer is the one concept best unifies these memes.

    Although… if we are trying to avoid the use of loaded words then I’m not sure ‘Peer-to-Peer’ is really gonna fly!!! I’ve encountered this confusion before and the way I generally get round it is by usually appending ‘collaboration’ to the end of the term and making the distinction between when computers collaborate by sharing their resources (ie: in the file-sharing sense) and when humans do so.

    NB: I’d highly recommend reading Michel’s essay: P2P and Human Evolution (http://p2pfoundation.net/Manifesto)

  43. Jens says:

    “n my view, the answer to that question is absolutely clear: “Socialist” would be associated with the dominant, modern vision of “socialism” which has, at its core, coercion.”

    This discussion is probably a very American one.

    In Germany, 30+% of voters are voting for parties (Social-Democratic Party and The Left) that have “democratic socialism” in their program.

  44. The only thing I take away from discussions like these is that the root of the problem is the fact that we are discussing the meaning of an ‘ism’. If we are talking about government, the role of government is to actually get things done, not foster intellectual arguments on the meaning of words (i.e. does ‘socialism’ require coersion?).

    The word ‘socialism’ is the perfect example because it has so many meanings depending on the context and the country. The meaning of ‘socialism’ in Austria is quite different than in Russia or the USA. ‘Web 2.0’ is close to meaningless, expecially considering that most of what is ascribed to ‘Web 2.0’ were central goals of the World Wide Web as it was created.

    I think that ultimately, these debates detract from actually getting things done. People can easily get stirred up for and against various ‘isms’ even though the likely agree/disagree with many related ideas. An example of a different approach would be to stick to actual practices surrounding an issue. Take health care, if we survey the top 50 countries for health care, we find basically all of them have some kind of single-payer plan. Seems pretty obvious that it works pretty well, no need to discuss ‘sociailsm’.

  45. Shmoe says:

    Your meaning, and your point, are well taken, Dr. Lessig. I suppose the counterpoint I, and others here, were trying to make was: that American public’s understanding of concepts and ideas that make up socialism are, at best, shallow; at worst, they are distorted beyond all recognition. While it almost certainly was not your intent to further these misconceptions, you did so by using the term “socialism” in this idiomatic way. It is difficult for people, who agree with your core argument, to support you, when they feel that you are disparaging or mis-characterizing some of their core values. This is said in the spirit of constructive criticism, and I, personally, hope it helps you in your tireless work on behalf of the common good.

  46. And as the Internet that Kelly and I celebrate doesn’t have “coercion” at its core, I maintain, it is not “socialist.”

    in your book Code you say that “code” (i.e.,the set of instructions that dictate how a machine should operate) is law. as others in this thread have observed, any rule of law is coercive. it is thus not a matter of coercion versus no coercion. indeed, web 2.0 is an effort to memorialize into code certain rules behaviour that are highly coercive. (there is nothing more restrictive to freedom than code stacks.)

    with its fundamental (we mice would say chinese red guard extreme) hostility to private property, the coercive shoe of “socialism” well fits the foot of web2.0.

    wear it.

  47. LSaldana says:

    “But the “hybrid” economy is not that economy. The Facebooks and Twitters and Flickrs and Yelps! are not entities engaged in a global urge to hug.”

    On this point, I am in agreement with you. When I first glanced at the article about a month ago, I was impressed with the boldness of the idea. However, the way the author defines socialism (“When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge”), means that this new economy is NOT socialism.

    As you say, Fbook et al. are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. Thus, when we share online, we don’t own what we create: my Facebook profile belongs to Facebook, not me. If I do something they don’t like, they can delete my profile without giving me warning. That does not sounds like “owning the means of production” to me.

  48. mynak says:

    What should we call the type of governance mechanisms that are evolving (in fits and starts) at every level from the local to the national to the global, from peer pressure and the institutionalization of accepted practice to enforceable regulations?

  49. Matt J. says:

    But it is still a mistake to say, “by coercion, I mean ‘law'”.

    In fact, it sounds like the kind of deliberate mistake the Libertarians regularly make, as an excuse for their inexcusable denigration of all government and law.

  50. roger vivier says:

    from peer pressure and the institutionalization of accepted practice to enforceable regulations

  51. as others in this thread have observed, any rule of law is coercive. it is thus not a matter of coercion versus no coercion. indeed, web 2.0 is an effort to memorialize into code certain rules behaviour that are highly coercive.http://www.belstaff–sale.co.uk/

  52. roger vivier says:

    it is thus not a matter of coercion versus no coercion. indeed, web 2.0 is an effort to memorialize into code certain rules behaviour that are highly coercive.http://www.rogervivier2014.net/

  53. very interesting article, thank you

Leave a Reply