Wired magazine’s current issue contains an interesting essay that’s worth a read, called (in Wired‘s loveable hyperbolic style) “The New Socialism.” With the U.S. economy still in a tailspin and “socialism” back on the political radar there (Obama: is he, or isn’t he?) the time is ripe to seriously ask whether the various political ideologies of Socialism still have traction. (Around here, we certainly believe they do.)
A couple things bothered me about Kevin Kelly’s analysis. In the first place, he spreads his net too wide, so that everything from tagging a photo on flickr to running a huge open-source software project is part of this “socialist” spectrum. Co-operation and collaboration, now nicknamed “crowdsourcing” has nothing by itself to do with any sort of larger social contract. Volunteering for stuff (and he acknowledges this) does not make you a socialist. Second, the range of examples Kelly provides are confined to the web and the software that runs it (fair enough, this is Wired, after all). I’m a huge nerd for the web and I believe it’s fantastically important. But contributing to open source projects like the Apache Web Server software—which is built and maintained for free by a few hundred volunteers and runs about half of all the world’s websites, including this one—is also not the same thing as political engagement. The task of writing that software is driven by the project of providing a free tool for people to express themselves online, because the organizers of the group believe that to be important.
In Canada, there are tasks associated with providing health care—building hospitals, training doctors, driving ambulances—but we do those things because there’s a general social and political consensus that health care is a universal right. The “social” aspect of our health care system isn’t that your GP collaborates—gosh, maybe over the internet!—with your radiologist. The secret socialist sauce is ideology: my deeply held belief that my neighbour should be healthy—and not only do I believe it, I’m willing to help pay for it.
In the U.S., no such ideology has a substantial foothold, even among large groups of techno-utopians who write Wikipedia articles, tag each other’s Flickr photos, or contribute lines of code to Firefox, for free, because they believe it’s important. The “Socialism 2.0” that Kevin Kelly has identified is politically inert, concerned with how to get stuff done—not what deserves doing.