“At the dawn of the new millennium, Net users are developing a much more efficient and enjoyable way of working together: cyber-communism.” Richard Barbrook.
Dmytri Kleiner, author of The Telekommunist Manifesto, is a software developer who has been working on projects “that investigate the political economy of the Internet, and the ideal of workers’ self-organization of production as a form of class struggle.” Born in the USSR, Dmytri grew up in Toronto and now lives in Berlin. He is a founder of the Telekommunisten Collective, which provides Internet and telephone services, as well as undertakes artistic projects that explore the way communication technologies have social relations embedded within them, such as deadSwap (2009) and Thimbl (2010).
“Furtherfield recently received a hard copy of The Telekommunist Manifesto in the post. After reading the manifesto, it was obvious that it was pushing the debate further regarding networked, commons-based and collaborative endeavours. It is a call to action, challenging our social behaviours and how we work with property and the means of its production. Proposing alternative routes beyond the creative commons, and top-down forms of capitalism (networked and physical), with a Copyfarleft attitude and the Telekommunist’s own collective form of Venture Communism. Many digital art collectives are trying to find ways to maintain their ethical intentions in a world where so many are easily diverted by the powers that be, perhaps this conversation will offer some glimpse of how we can proceed with some sense of shared honour, in the maelstrom we call life…”
Marc Garrett: Why did you decide to create a hard copy of the Manifesto, and have it republished and distributed through the Institute of Networked Cultures, based in Amsterdam?
Dmytri Kleiner: Geert Lovink contacted me and offered to publish it, I accepted the offer. I find it quite convenient to read longer texts as physical copies.
MG: Who is the Manifesto written for?
DK: I consider my peers to be politically minded hackers and artists, especially artists whose work is engaged with technology and network cultures. Much of the themes and ideas in the Manifesto are derived from ongoing conversations in this community, and the Manifesto is a contribution to this dialogue.
MG: Since the Internet we have witnessed the rise of various networked communities who have explored individual and shared expressions. Many are linked, in opposition to the controlling mass systems put in place by corporations such as Facebook and MySpace. It is obvious that your shared venture critiques the hegemonies influencing our behaviours through the networked construct, via neoliberal appropriation, and its ever expansive surveillance strategies. In the Manifesto you say “In order to change society we must actively expand the scope of our commons, so that our independent communities of peers can be materially sustained and can resist the encroachments of capitalism.” What kind of alternatives do you see as ‘materially sustainable’?
DK: Currently none. Precisely because we only have immaterial wealth in common, and therefore the surplus value created as a result of the new platforms and relationships will always be captured by those who own scarce resources, either because they are physically scarce, or because they have been made scarce by laws such as those protecting patents and trademarks. To become sustainable, networked communities must possess a commons that includes the assets required for the material upkeep of themselves and their networks. Thus we must expand the scope of the commons to include such assets.
MG: The Manifesto re-opens the debate around the importance of class, and says “The condition of the working class in society is largely one of powerlessness and poverty; the condition of the working class on the Internet is no different.” Could you offer some examples of who this working class is using the Internet?
DK: I have a very classic notion of working class: Anyone whose livelihood depends on their continuing to work. Class is a relationship. Workers are a class who lack the independent means of production required for their own subsistence, and thus require wage, patronage or charity to survive.
MG: For personal and social reasons, I wish for the working class not to be simply presumed as marginalised or economically disadvantaged, but also engaged in situations of empowerment individually and collectively.
DK: Sure, the working class is a broad range of people. What they hold in common is a lack of significant ownership of productive assets. As a class, they are not able to accumulate surplus value. As you can see, there is little novelty in my notion of class.
MG: Engels reminded scholars of Marx after his death that, “All history must be studied afresh”. Which working class individuals or groups do you see out there escaping from such classifications, in contemporary and networked culture?
DK: Individuals can always rise above their class. Many a dotCom founder have cashed-in with a multi-million-dollar “exit,” as have propertyless individuals in other fields. Broad class mobility has only gotten less likely. If you where born poor today you are less likely than ever to avoid dying poor, or avoid leaving your own children in poverty. That is the global condition.
I do not believe that class conditions can be escaped unless class is abolished. Even though it is possible to convince people that class conditions do not apply anymore by means of equivocation, and this is a common tactic of right wing political groups to degrade class consciousness. However, class conditions are a relationship. The power of classes varies over time, under differing historical conditions.
The condition of a class is the balance of its struggle against other classes. This balance is determined by its capacity for struggle. The commons is a component of our capacity, especially when it replaces assets we would otherwise have to pay Capitalist-owners for. If we can shift production from propriety productive assets to commons-based ones, we will also shift the balance of power among the classes, and thus will not escape, but rather change, our class conditions. But this shift is proportional to the economic value of the assets, thus this shift requires expanding the commons to include assets that have economic value, in other words, scarce assets that can capture rent.
MG: The Telekommunist Manifesto, proposes ‘Venture Communism’ as a new working model for peer production, saying that it “provides a structure for independent producers to share a common stock of productive assets, allowing forms of production formerly associated exclusively with the creation of immaterial value, such as free software, to be extended to the material sphere.” Apart from the obvious language of appropriation, from ‘Venture Capitalism’ to ‘Venture Communism’. How did this idea come about?
DK: The appropriation of the term is where it started.
The idea came about from the realization that everything we were doing in the free culture, free software & free networks communities was sustainable only when it served the interests of Capital, and thus didn’t have the emancipatory potential that myself and others saw in it. Capitalist financing meant that only capital could remain free, so free software was growing, but free culture was subject to a war on sharing and reuse, and free networks gave way to centralized platforms, censorship and surveillance. When I realized that this was due to the logic of profit capture, and precondition of Capital, I realized that an alternative was needed, a means of financing compatible with the emancipatory ideals that free communication held to me, a way of building communicative
infrastructure that was born and could remain free. I called this idea Venture Communism and set out to try to understand how it might work.
MG: An effective vehicle for the revolutionary workers’ struggle. There is also the proposition of a ‘Venture Commune’, as a firm. How would this work?
DK: The venture commune would work like a venture capital fund, financing commons-based ventures. The role of the commune is to allocate scarce property just like a network distributes immaterial property. It acquires funds by issuing securitized debt, like bonds, and acquires productive assets, making them available for rent to the enterprises it owns. The workers of the enterprises are themselves owners of the commune, and the collected rent is split evenly among them, this is in addition to whatever remuneration they receive for work with the enterprises.
This is just a sketch, and I don’t claim that the Venture Communist model is finished, or that even the ideas that I have about it now are final, it is an ongoing project and to the degree that it has any future, it will certainly evolve as it encounters reality, not to mention other people’s ideas and innovations.
The central point is that such a model is needed, the implementation details that I propose are… well, proposals.
MG: So, with the combination of free software, free code, Copyleft and Copyfarleft licenses, through peer production, does the collective or co-operative have ownership, like shares in a company?
DK: The model I currently support is that a commune owns many enterprises, each independent, so the commune would own 100% of the shares in each enterprise. The workers of the enterprises would themselves own the commune, so there would be shares in the commune, and each owner would have exactly one.
MG: In the Manifesto, there is a section titled ‘THE CREATIVE ANTI-COMMONS’, where the Creative Commons is discussed as an anti-commons, peddling a “capitalist logic of privatization under a deliberately misleading name.” To many, this is a controversy touching the very nature of many networked behaviours, whether they be liberal or radical minded. I am intrigued by the use of the word ‘privatization’. Many (including myself) assume it to mean a process whereby a non-profit organization is changed into a private venture, usually by governments, adding extra revenue to their own national budget through the dismantling of commonly used public services. Would you say that the Creative Commons, is acting in the same way but as an Internet based, networked corporation?
DK: As significant parts of the Manifesto is a remix of my previous texts, this phrase originally comes from the longer article “COPYRIGHT, COPYLEFT AND THE CREATIVE ANTI-COMMONS,” written by me and Joanne Richardson under the name “Ana Nimus”:
What we mean here is that the creative “commons” is privatized because the copyright is retained by the author, and only (in most cases) offered to the community under non-commercial terms. The original author has special rights while commons users have limited rights, specifically limited in such a way as to eliminate any possibility for them to make a living by employing this work. Thus these are not commons works, but rather private works. Only the original author has the right to employ the work commercially.
All previous conceptions of an intellectual or cultural commons, including anti-copyright and pre-copyright culture as well as the principles of free software movement where predicated on the concept of not allowing special rights for an original author, but rather insisting on the right for all to use and reuse in common. The non-commercial licenses represent a privatization of the idea of the commons and a reintroduction of the concept of a uniquely original artist with special private rights.
Further, as I consider all expressions to be extensions of previous perceptions, the “original” ideas that rights are being claimed on in this way are not original, but rather appropriated by the rights-claimed made by creative-commons licensers. More than just privatizing the concept and composition of the modern cultural commons, by asserting a unique author, the creative commons colonizes our common culture by asserting unique authorship over a growing body of works, actually expanding the scope of private culture rather than commons culture.
MG: So, this now brings us to Thimbl, a free, open source, distributed micro-blogging platform, which as you say is “similar to Twitter or identi.ca. However, Thimbl is a specialized web-based client for a User Information protocol called Finger. The Finger Protocol was orginally developed in the 1970s, and as such, is already supported by all existing server platforms.” Why create Thimbl? What kind of individuals and groups do you expect to use it, and how?
DK: First and foremost Thimbl is an artwork.
A central theme of Telekommunisten is that Capital will not fund free, distributed platforms, and instead funds centralized, privately owned platforms. Thimbl is in part a parody of supposedly innovative new technologies like twitter. By creating a twitter-like platform using Finger, Thimbl demonstrates that “status updates” where part of network culture back to the 1970s, and thus multimillion-dollar capital investment and massive central data centers are not required to enable such forms of communication, but rather are required to centrally control and profit from them.
MG: In a collaborative essay with Brian Wyrick, published on Mute Magazine ‘InfoEnclosure-2.0’, you both say “The mission of Web 2.0 is to destroy the P2P aspect of the Internet. To make you, your computer, and your Internet connection dependent on connecting to a centralised service that controls your ability to communicate. Web 2.0 is the ruin of free, peer-to-peer systems and the return of monolithic ‘online services’.” Is Thimbl an example of the type of platform that will help to free-up things, in respect of domination by Web 2.0 corporations?
DK: Yes, Thimbl is not only a parody, it suggests a viable way forward, extending classic Internet platforms instead of engineering overly complex “full-stack” web applications. However, we also comment on why this road is not more commonly taken, because “The most significant challenge is not technical, it is political.” Our ability to sustain ourselves as developers requires us to serve our employers, who are more often than not funded by Capital and therefore are primarily interested in controlling user data and interaction, since delivering such control is a precondition of receiving capital in the first place.
If Thimbl is to become a viable platform, it will need to be adopted by a large community. Our small collective can only take the project so far. We are happy to advise any who are interested in how to join in. http://thimbl.tk is our own thimbl instance, it “knows” about most users I would imagine, since I personally follow all existing Thimbl users, as far as I know, thus you can see the state of the thimblsphere in the global timeline.
Even if the development of a platform like Thimbl is not terribly significant (with so much to accomplish so quickly), the value of a social platform is the of course derived from the size of it’s user base, thus organizations with more reach than Telekommunisten will need to adopt the platform and contribute to it for it to transcend being an artwork to being a platform.
Of course, as the website says “the idea of Thimbl is more important than Thimbl itself,” we would be equally happy if another free, open platform extending classic Internet protocols where to emerge, people have suggested employing smtp/nntp, xmmp or even http/WebDav instead of finger, and there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Our interest is the development of a free, open platform, however it works, and Thimbl is an artistic, technical and conceptual contribution to this undertaking.
MG: Another project is the Telekommunisten Facebook page, you have nearly 3000 fans on there. It highlights the complexity and contradictions many independents are faced with. It feels as though the Internet is now controlled by a series of main hubs; similar to a neighbourhood being dominated by massive superstores, whilst smaller independent shops and areas are pushed aside. With this in mind, how do you deal with these contradictions?
DK: I avoided using Facebook and similar for quite some time, sticking to email, usenet, and irc as I have since the 90s. When I co-authored InfoEnclosure 2.0, I was still not a user of these platforms. However it became more and more evident that not only where people adopting these platforms, but that they were developing a preference for receiving information on them, they would rather be contacted there than by way of email, for instance. Posting stuff of Facebook engaged them, while receiving email for many people has become a bother. The reasons for this are themselves interesting, and begin with the fact that millions where being spent by Capitalists to improve the usability of these platforms, while the classic Internet platforms were more or less left as they were in the 90s. Also, many people are using social media that never had been participants in the sorts of mailing lists, usenet groups, etc that I was accustomed to using to share information.
If I wanted to reach people and share information, I needed to do so on the technologies that others are using, which are not necessarily the ones I would prefer they use.
My criticism of Facebook and other sites is not they are not useful, it is rather that they are private, centralized, proprietary platforms. Also, simply abstaining from Facebook in the name of my own media purity is not something that I’m interested in, I don’t see capitalism as a consumer choice, I’m more interested in the condition of the masses, than my own consumer correctness. In the end it’s clear that criticizing platforms like Facebook today means using those platforms. Thus, I became a user and set up the Telekommunisten page. Unsurprisingly, it’s been quite successful for us, and reaches a lot more people than our other channels, such as our websites, mailing lists, etc. Hopefully it will also help us promote new decentralized channels as well, as they become viable.
MG: So, I downloaded deadSwap (http://deadSwap.net) which I intend to explore and use. On the site it says “The Internet is dead. In order to evade the flying monkeys of capitalist control, peer communication can only abandon the Internet for the dark alleys of covert operations. Peer-to-peer is now driven offline and can only survive in clandestine cells.” Could you explain the project? And are people using it as we speak?
DK: I have no idea if people are using it, I am currently not running a network.
Like thimbl, deadSwap is an artwork. Unlike thimbl, which has the seeds of a viable platform within it, deadSwap is pure parody.
It was developed for the 2009 Sousveillance Conference, The Art of Inverse Surveillance, at Aarhus University. deadSwap is a distopian urban game where participants play secret agents sharing information on usb memory sticks by hiding them in secret locations or otherwise covertly exchanging them, communicating through an anonymizing SMS gateway. It is a parody of the “hacker elite” reaction to Internet enclosure, the promotion of the idea that new covert technologies will defeat attempts to censor the Internet, and we can simply outsmart and outmaneuver those who own and control our communications systems with clandestine technologies. This approach often rejects any class analysis out-of-hand, firmly believing in the power of us hackers to overcome state and corporate repressions. Though very simple in principal, deadSwap is actually very hard to use, as the handbook says “The success of the network depends on the competence and diligence of the participants” and “Becoming a super-spy isn’t easy.”
MG: What other services/platforms/projects does the Telekommunisten collective offer the explorative and imaginative, social hacker to join and collaborate with?
DK: We provide hosting services which are used by individuals and small organizations, especially by artists, http://trick.ca, electronic newsletter hosting (http://www.freshsent.info) and a long distance calling service (http://www.dialstation.com). We can often be found on IRC in#telnik in freenode. Thimbl will probably be a major focus for us, and anybody that wants to join the project is more than welcome, we have a community board to co-ordinate this which can be found here: http://www.thimbl.net/community.html
For those that want to follow my personal updates but don’t want don’t use any social media, most of my updates also go here: http://dmytri.info
Thank you for a fascintaing conversation Dmytri,
Thank you Marc 🙂
Top Quote: THE::CYBER.COM/MUNIST::MANIFESTO by Richard Barbrook. http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/18/by-richard-barbrook/
The Foundation for P2P Alternatives proposes to be a meeting place for those who can broadly agree with the following propositions, which are also argued in the essay or book in progress, P2P and Human Evolution. http://blog.p2pfoundation.net
In the essay ‘Imagine there is no copyright and no cultural conglomerates too…” by Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schijndel, they say “Once a work has appeared or been played, then we should have the right to change it, in other words to respond, to remix, and not only so many years after the event that the copyright has expired. The democratic debate, including on the cutting edge of artistic forms of expression, should take place here and now and not once it has lost it relevance.”
Issue no. 4 Joost Smiers & Marieke van Schijndel, Imagine there are is no copyright and no cultural conglomorates too… Better for artists, diversity and the economy / an essay. colophon: Authors: Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schijndel, Translation from Dutch: Rosalind Buck, Design: Katja van Stiphout. Printer: ‘Print on Demand’. Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam 2009. ISBN: 978-90-78146-09-4.