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May 26, 2009

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The New Socialism is the New Humanism

We loooove Kevin Kelly around here at Snarkmarket. Robin tipped me off to his stuff and he’s since joined Atul Gawande, Roger Ebert, Virginia Heffernan, Clay Shirky, Michael Pollan, Clive Thompson, Gina Trapani, Jason Kottke, Ben Vershbow, Hilzoy, Paul Krugman, Sy Hersh, and Scott Horton (among others) in the Gore-Gladwell Snarkfantastic Hall of Fame. Dude should have his own tag up in here.

But I think there’s a rare misstep (or rather, misnaming) in his new Wired essay, “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online.” It’s right there in the title. That S-word. Socialism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like socialism where socialism makes sense. Almost everyone agrees that it makes sense to have a socialized police and military. I like socialized (or partially socialized) education, and I think it makes a lot of sense to have socialized health insurance, as part of a broad social safety net that helps keep people safe, capable, knowledgeable, working. Socialism gets no bad rap from me.

I know Kelly is using the word socialism as a provocation. And he takes pains to say that the new socialism, like the new snow, is neither cold nor wet:

We’re not talking about your grandfather’s socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now…

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.

But I think of socialism as something very specific. It’s something where a group of citizens pools their resources as part of a democratic (and at least partially technocratic) administering of benefits to everyone. This could be part of a nation-state or a co-op grocery store. And maybe this is too Hobbesian, but I think about it largely as motivated by a defense against something bad. Maybe there’s some kind of general surplus-economy I’m missing where we can just socialize good things without risk. That’d be nice.

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, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.

But I’ll put this out as an axiom: if there’s no risk of something genuinely bad, no cost but opportunity cost, if all we’re doing is passing good things around to each other, then that, my friend, is not socialism.

This is a weird paradox: what we’re seeing emerge in the digital sphere is TOO altruistic to be socialism! There isn’t enough material benefit back to the individual. It’s not cynical enough! It solves no collective action problems! And again, it’s totally individualistic (yet totally compatible with collectivities), voluntarist (yet totally compatible with owning one’s own labor and being compensated for it), anti-statist (yet totally compatible with the state). It’s too pure in its intentions and impure in its structure.

Kelly, though, says, we’ve got no choice. We’ve got to call this collectivism, even if it’s collective individualism, socialism:

I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there’s rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.

In fact, we have a word, a very old word, that precisely describes this impulse to band together into small groups, set collective criteria for excellence, and try to collect and disseminate the best, most useful, most edifying, most relevant bodies of knowledge as widely and as cheaply as possible, for the greatest possible benefit to the individual’s self-cultivation and to the preservation and enrichment of the culture as a whole.

And that word is humanism.

Kelly might actually be more skeptical about the word humanism than he is about the word socialism. Truth be told, we’re all a little skeptical about the word humanism these days, even if it doesn’t trigger the same vigorous intellectual food fights as socialism.

Doesn’t humanism mean that human beings are at the center of the universe? That the individual is absolutely more important than the collective? That the subject is more important than and distinct from the object, since objects are simple, instrumental tools and humans should never be treated as such? That there’s a universal human nature that all individuals either exemplify or aspire to?

We don’t think about ourselves this way anymore. Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Watson/Crick put an end to it. Human beings are both deeply social and deeply particularized. There’s nothing particularly special about us. We’re one kind of life among many, many others, both on earth and in the universe. There’s no good line to draw between the human and the animal, the cultural and the natural, or the subject and the object. We’re all of these things at once — squishy organs, spastic neurons, animal passions, mostly useless chemical codes, beings that get used and made by their tools as much as we make and use them.

I totally agree. Even if you don’t.

But let’s review what humanism really is.

The best historical locus of humanism is the Renaissance in western Europe. I like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s terse account:

The exact point in time when the term “Humanism” was first adopted is unknown. It is, however, certain that Italy and the re-adopting of Latin letters as the staple of human culture were responsible for the name of Humanists. Literoe humaniores was an expression coined in reference to the classic literature of Rome and the imitation and reproduction of its literary forms in the new learning; this was in contrast to and against the Literoe sacroe of scholasticism. In the time of Ariosto, Erasmus, and Luther’s beginnings, the term umanisa was in effect an equivalent to the terms “classicist” or “classical scholar.”

Cf. this entry on “Renaissance Humanism” at

Historians are pretty much agreed on the general outlines of those mental attitudes and scholarly interests which are assembled under the rubric of humanism. The most fundamental point of agreement is that the humanist mentality stood at a point midway between medieval supernaturalism and the modern scientific and critical attitude. Medievalists see humanism as the terminal product of the Middle Ages. Modern historians are perhaps more apt to view humanism as the germinal period of modernism.

Perhaps the most we can assume is that the man of the Renaissance lived, as it were, between two worlds. The world of the medieval Christian matrix, in which the significance of every phenomenon was ultimately determined through uniform points of view, no longer existed for him. On the other hand, he had not yet found in a system of scientific concepts and social principles stability and security for his life. In other words, Renaissance man may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason.

Humanism’s always characterized by this double bind, between antiquity and modernity, scholasticism and science. You turn to the timeless high-minded wisdom of the ancients — but use them to write literature in the vernacular and print BOTH on newfangled printing machines so you can sell them to merchants and bankers, painters and actors. You start developing a new self-critical rationality — but you use it first to write letters, edit texts, and plan cities, and only later to make telescopes and invent calculus.

Now I don’t know about you, but I LIKE the idea that humanism is born out of that uncertainty, that in-betweenness. To me, that feels like, well, now.

And I take it as an axiom that the major developments in the history of humanism have coincided with and been driven by major transformations in society, technology, and media.

  1. In Ancient Greece, humanism was born with city-state democracy and the synthesis of an oral tradition with a new technology of writing;
  2. Renaissance humanism coincided with the emergence of a new urban middle class, the nation-state, and the printing press;
  3. Modern humanism both flourishes and collapses in the face of industrial capitalism, the imperial state, representative democracy, and mass media in the form of the newspaper, radio, cinema, and television

So just as humanism has never corresponded with a SINGLE social structure or information technology, it doesn’t imply a fixed set of beliefs concerning the relationship of human beings to the rest of the universe.

What it does imply is 1) an ethos of self-criticism and 2) a desire to use ANY available technologies — social, scientific, or communicative — to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. If there’s a motivating factor at all, it’s born out of this spirit of self-critique; we need to circulate this information, if we’re ever going to better understand an always-emergent modernity.

In this sense, there is no overcoming humanism, no leaving it behind.

The only way you could decisively reject humanism is to actively seek to either destroy or control those technologies in order to halt this circulation and suppress self-criticism.

The only way to transform humanism is to try to both understand and transform these conditions. There is no route in either direction through thought alone, no new understanding of the world without the world itself being changed.

Today, those transformations are social, even global, as parts of the world industrialize while others deindustrialize. You’ve got goods and currency shifting from one end of the world to another at unprecedented speed.

These changes are Technological, in the big-T sense, as the large-scale marvels of mechanical and civil engineering of the last century (1850 to 1950) give way to the micro- and nanotechnologies pioneered by electrical engineers emerging in this one (1950 to the near future). But I think they are above all Medialogical, as text, sound, and images are reconfigured for digital storage and communication.

It is easy to overemphasize the novelty of digital technologies. We stared at screens long before analog cathode ray tubes were swapped for liquid crystal displays. The first man-made screen that we know about was the cave at Nascaux, where our ancestors painted beautiful, powerful animals, next to those mysterious, symbolic negative hands. Before that, we played out dramas in the stars, each constellation a figure against the infinite ground of nighttime space. Our mothers whispered lullabies, stories of gods, men, and heroes, to us before we could even speak.

Radio, which still forms the basis of much of our digital communication, dematerializes information far more radically than any physical hard drive. And bulletin boards, microfilm readers, card catalogues, and tabloid newspapers provided the experience of hypertext long before anyone thought Vannevar Bush’s standalone steampunk desk could be mapped onto a network of computers.

This. Is. Not. New.

So we’ve been playing out this game of humanism for a long time. Humanism is older than socialism. It’s more primal. And when we lash out against bogey-man figures of socialism, really what we abhor is the rejection of humanism: the halt of information, the destruction of knowledge, the absence of that continued chain of self-critique and data transmission. That’s what we long for.

Partly, here, I’m trying to pick a fight. To split the unstable coalition between the media-and-technology humanists and the brain-and-gene humanists on the one hand, and between the traditional liberal arts humanists and the traditional religious humanists on the other.

The brain-and-gene humanists, like the religious humanists, can be very stone-age in their thinking. Human nature for both of these groups is real, and it’s fully determined by events that happened thousands of years ago. We’re hard-wired for everything — language, sex, and sin. And both groups hate the secular humanists - the culture people - for thinking that human beings are super-adaptable. Never mind that it was the behavioralists and empiricists who pushed the idea of a blank slate — it’s so much easier to pick on romantics and postmodernists, Freudians and Marxists instead.

I’ve totally set up straw men here; like I said, I want to pick a fight. But it’s really a fight about self-conception, about who or what you think your enemy is. It’s a straw man against setting up straw men.

Ultimately, the new digital humanism is more important than the new scientific humanism, because it really is a humanism. It actually more thoroughly rejects the naïve, universalizing humanism than the brains-and-genes crowd. It’s MORE compatible with what we’re finding out about how the brain works, how it processes information, and the complex interactions between language, culture, our bodies, and our DNA. And it more richly describes what is happening NOW than armchair postmodernism, evolutionism, or millenarianism. It positively gives us somewhere to go.

The New Socialism is the New Humanism.

Posted May 26, 2009 at 6:53 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Language, New Liberal Arts


People on the internet have been pushing the communitarian web utopia for a decades; this seemed like a little bit of a rehashed column for Kevin Kelley in between good technium posts.

Explaining why people give away as much as they do seems to have everything to do with opportunity cost. Kelly's lines about creative commons being communistic seem to show that he doesn't really understand the other myriad benefits people get, including but in no way limited to the uploading of their files to an account tied to their identity on a public system (have you ever scrawled graffiti on a bathroom wall because you liked the idea that someone else might see it?).

Everything has wildly fluctuating and inconsistent costs and benefits; any system using any sort of voluntary exchange to spread these around is going to be "capitalism." Coming up with new names like socialism or communitarianism just seems like cover for a lack of analysis.

As for the humanism angle, I think this does a good job of stopping attempts at creating a fake debate, pointing out that this is all one thing and demanding explanation instead of rhetoric. On Econtalk, Russ Roberts has been interviewing Jimmy Wales, Clay Shirky, Eric Raymond, Chris Anderson, etc... and the results are an interesting discussion of 'altruism.' With Chris Anderson, it was amazing to see someone championing the idea of "Free" didn't have a firm grasp on opportunity costs. For these web guys it is time to stop gesturing excitedly and start examining the underlying behavior.

The NYT is on a socialism kick lately too:



The thing is, I think Kelly DOES understand that this isn't really socialism as anyone understands it. All of his qualifications give the socialist store away. It's snow that isn't cold or wet.

The rhetorical trick he adopts is to say 1) we have no other word to describe what appears to be collective, non-utilitarian behavior; or less strongly, 2) even if there might be alternatives, it's still legitimate to call this socialism.

My beef with calling it socialism isn't with the thing or the word itself; it's that the word is misleading. Or better, nonleading. It just doesn't lead you to any conclusions that are useful, whether descriptive or prescriptive. There are no new interpretations, predictions, or qualifications you can make once you call it socialism, no historical parallels to draw, no structural implications to tease out. It's a descriptor that consumes itself.

Humanism, as I've tried to show, doesn't have the same problems, and it has many more advantages. It allows us to better understand our present, past, and future. And as I said in the post, it gives us somewhere to go. (Socialism gives us some places to go, but nobody actually seems to be going there.)

I get this sense that the political-nomenclature rhetorical mode (meme, even) must have a long history in poli-sci literature that I, outside of the humanities, am unaware of (I sense its presence). My experience is that when it emerges in popular discussion, nothing good ever comes of it. The frame preemptively diverts from any sort of analysis, which often seems to be the point. Socialist? Humanist? Who cares? The word's just a placeholder. Call yourself a New Muppetist if you like, but tell me where you stand and why.

Posted by: Jake on May 28, 2009 at 09:02 PM

Well, I don't think the word's just a placeholder. (I would say that, wouldn't I?) Part of the issue is that these names aren't just used in self-identification. It's not like I claim to be heading up a group calling itself "New Humanists" with a manifesto of what I/we stand for, like we're an avant-garde movement or something. They're used as descriptive/ethnographic terms, too -- in fact, way more often.

I might be idiosyncratic, but I take my cues from the German sociologist/political theorist Max Weber, who elaborated a pretty rich methodology for the descriptive social sciences focusing on what he called "ideal types." The idea is that historical phenomena cluster around certain nodes of possibilities, modes of organization, economy, legitimation, distribution of wealth or force or whatever, and that you can best try to understand these things by looking at a set of exemplars. In reality, 90% of the time, nothing is going to conform to these pure models, but the models give you a place to start that you can tailor your analyses accordingly: e.g., "China isn't a pure communist state, even though it conforms to x,y,z, it has also introduced reforms/variations a,b,c" - communism gives you a place to discuss the social and state structure of China, not just because it's what the state self-identifies as, but because that really does work as a good description. If it starts to tip too far, then you start saying "well, maybe it's more of a repressive oligarchy..." etc.

The idea is that the terms and the relationship between them actually allow you to see things that you wouldn't otherwise. I read an article the other day that argued that television shows, like civilization or art movements proceed in an arc that goes from primitive to classic, then to baroque and finally decadent. This is half a gag, but the analogy (and that's what it is, an argument by analogy) gives you a shorthand that helps you reveal things that are otherwise difficult to understand. It's not so different from saying that light "is" both a wave and a particle -- we understand waves and particles relatively well, and light behaves like both of them. Even "wave" and "particle" are analogies that we've largely forgotten to see as analogies, because we've defined them so precisely.

So the more precisely you start to define these terms, the more you improve their predictive/descriptive power, at the cost of their analogical generality. Socialism is like this. It's one of a set of largely mapped political possibilities (mapping the set of possible social orders is a pastime that goes back at least to Aristotle) that we understand fairly well. When we see nonconforming variants on it, we coin new terms, like "social market" or "state capitalism" or whatever, that help us explain the distinctions.

But when another ideal type presents itself with better predictive/descriptive power, then either we mix up the terminology or we switch to something else! It makes no sense to keep calling something one thing when it actually bears nothing more than a tangential connection to it.

I'll say there's also an intellectual law of conservation of energy here -- just as no mathematician would go through all of the steps to re-prove a theorem that already exists when he/she can just use the result, no social scientist or historian ought to coin a completely new term when existing ones that have already been richly analyzed and are well-understood will also do.

Sometimes this creates problems because saying something is "well-understood" is always only true in the context of a certain community, etc. So often you wind up doing a lot of the explaining anyways. But usually the historical analogy gets traction somewhere.

I say, Kelly's analogy of socialism gets traction nowhere, and my analogy of humanism gets traction everywhere. Maybe that's conceited or uncharitable on my part, but I'm willing to keep explaining it and trying to prove it.

I wonder if Kelly wasn't in a romantic mood? In touting the usefulness of this new "socialism" is he really just making a case for the power of community? Is he taking a swipe at antagonism, or wishing away lost gemeinshaft?

Humanism works nicely in so far as it can allow us to think about the intellectual implications of all this collaborative effort while also realizing (as Kelly wants us to) that it all might have long-lasting effects on the shape of our political economy. Tomorrow's markets may look different than today's do. Tomorrow's politics might work different than today's do.

But I couldn't help but think that it might also be fruitful to draw some comparisons with the late-19th century managerial revolution, as framed by business historians like Alfred Chandler. It started with railroads. Hoping to make their jobs more secure, many engineers and mid-level bureaucrats decided that it paid for them to cooperate with one another across company lines, setting track gauge standards for instance. Eventually they formed professional organizations. Soon enough it became essential for a company to have engineers with professional connections, and professional reputation became very valuable. All that collaborative and cooperative work helped companies and the industry, but it probably helped the individual engineers and professionals most of all. They developed a system in which their employers paid for their otherwise free intellectual work.

I think much of the same thing is going on in the various open source/ dot.communism stuff: various software companies and other large corporations essentially subsidize the movement. Their employees somehow bargain or steal free-time and computing resources (I differ with Kelly who claims that the workers own the means of production here) in order to write some new bit of code for OpenOffice. In exchange,those employees get social capital through improved reputation and may even pick up some useful skills.

BTW: Tim, nice defense of analogies and labels. I will continue to think about it.

Posted by: Dan on May 31, 2009 at 09:01 PM


I like the intellectual conservation of energy point; I think it dovetails nicely with Kuhn and SSR. He was basically complaining that physics before Newton was a whole bunch of people constantly rewriting the book from the beginning. Newton nails something, then everyone starts at Newton before trying to rewrite the book again.

Analyzing new ideas seems to mean following the prevalent rules for rationality which is a weak point for journalists and their manifestos in Wired. Kelly and these web guys aren't really suited to talking about sociology or economics, so it is hard to see how they can synthesize ideas and take it to the next level.

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