Saturday, October 08, 2011

The new economic power

Even when I'm trying to focus on my job, I get drawn into thinking about social activism. My most recent distraction comes from two articles by Pieter Hintjens. The main essay is called "A User's Guide to the Digital Revolution", the introduction to a book called Software and Silicon. Hintjens presents recent economic developments as a "digital revolution" on par with the "industrial revolution" of the early 19th century, and predicts similarly radical changes in social organization and political power. In a slapdash theory of class struggle, he makes analogies between then and now:
The new social concentrations of 19th century cities allowed an entrepreneurial middle class to emerge, and quite rapidly their economic power turned into political power, and in 1848 there was political revolution across Europe and the establishment of parliamentary democracy in many countries. Political change follows economic change, which follows social change.
Hintjens posits that the "old money" ruling class attempts to constrain the rising power of the "new money" entrepreneurial class with laws such as the Corn Laws of 19th century Britain, or the Intellectual Property laws of today's global system.

This narrative is all well and good (though it seems simplistic relative to the theories described in my current nightstand-book: a biography of Friedrich Engles), but it got me thinking about how the economic power of the "new money" differs from the "old money" in such a way that it demands radical change to the political system. Today, it seems that new money merges seamlessly into the old money; software entrepreneurs sell their start-ups or they draw salaries and dividends, which they then deposit in banks or stock-market investment funds -- just like everyone else with money. This is not anything like the difference between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie in the 19th century.

For there to be a true conflict between a rising economic class and the establishment, the new power has to be fundamentally different and incompatible with the old power. The aristocratic and bourgeoisie power structures were ideologically incompatible, and functionally non-convertible (though some industrialists were granted titles of nobility). I have to look hard -- and squint -- to see that sort of conflict in existing classes.

Hintjens provides a hint of this new form of power in another essay, called Testing Considered Evil. While this is superficially a technical essay about software design methodology, it is actually part of a manifesto about economic organization and how to motivate workers. Here is where we begin to see a radical form of economic power; Hintjens is focusing on how to get programmers involved (and obsessed) with Open Source Software development. This is economic activity that falls outside of the established channels -- it doesn't generate cash revenues, or any sort of property that can be owned by a corporation. The only economic asset gained by the entrepreneur is organizational: a network of motivated programmers, and a reputation that enables the entrepreneur to call on their services.

When this form of economic organization is viewed alongside the efforts of people such as the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, I can imagine that something big is happening, and that tomorrow's power will not look like yesterday's.


Pieter Hintjens said...

I like your analysis of "Testing Considered Evil". Indeed, old and new powers are not interoperable, or at least where they are, we don't see conflicts. I think the recent outcry and demonstration of power over SOPA/PIPA proves my theory of conflict at least somewhat less slapdash. :)

Ricketson said...

Thanks for commenting.

The organization of the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement is worth thinking about. In particular, I'm wondering how interact with the "campaign finance problem". I've long thought that the core problem with campaign cash is that too many voters passively rely on advertisements for information about elections. I've thought that the solution would be to have permanent communication networks that would provide us with the relevant information and make advertising (and campaign money) irrelevant. Of course, these need to be peer-to-peer networks, not newspapers (which are often partisan mouthpieces).

I had thought that this type of network would form around activist organizations (e.g. ACLU), but we've recently seen the responsibility taken by general purpose groups (Wikipedia, Reddit, Google) ... with greater or lesser amounts of traditional power.