Dot-communist Manifesto

By Andrew Sullivan
New York Times
April 10, 2000

A sharp, unexpected twang of conscience hit me the other day. It occurred as I was merrily downloading the umpteenth Pet Shop Boys B side from another Napster user's hard drive. Was this theft? Nobody, I rationalized, was going to be without the Extended Rollo Mix of "New York City Boy" because of my actions. All Napster is, after all, is a huge database of MP3 files, a musical commune dreamed up by a college-freshman geek. And sharing a database isn't theft. If you agree to join the Napster "community," you agree to share every MP3 you have with any other Napsterite who is online at the same time you are. It's worth the tiny loss of privacy, because what you get in return is access to more free music than anyone could listen to in a lifetime.

So whom was I hurting by copying one lousy song? Sure, I'd avoided paying a record company a royalty -- but it was rich enough already. Likewise the Pet Shop Boys. And it wasn't as if I'd smuggled a disc out of Tower Records in a knapsack. It wasn't even in any meaningful sense "mine," since other Napster users could now download it from me without my even noticing. Neither had it been in any meaningful sense "theirs" -- once they agreed to pool their own MP3 collection with those of other Napsterites.

What exactly was going on here? The only workable definition is communism. What Marx had hoped would occur because of a new dawn in human economic relations has been made possible instead by a new form of human technology. Once we enter the Web, we become like medieval peasants entering their village commons; almost everything is shared. The only difference is that, unlike the Middle Ages, our modern ability to duplicate everything instantly means that property isn't even "shared." It's possessed simultaneously by everyone. By turning physical property into endlessly duplicable e-property, the ancient human problem of "mine-thine" has been essentially solved. There was once the parable of the loaves and the fishes; there is now the parable of copy and paste. For the first time since Plato first dreamed of it in "The Republic," communism is actually feasible. And for the first time since Marx christened it, it makes sense.

By this I don't mean that the real world has changed. We live at a time when the market is the closest thing we have to a civic religion. Money has rarely been as important in determining prospects in life, and economic inequalities are mounting. But the online world is different. Admittedly, even dreamy start-ups like Napster hope to make millions one day -- and the Web promises to be an unparalleled way to buy, sell and market products. But alongside this growth of e-capitalism, and inextricable from it, is the tenaciously communistic nature of the Web itself. What the Web is best at, after all, is transmitting information -- and what the fledgling years of the Internet have proved is that, in this context, free information has an edge over its pricey competition. Apart from pornography sites and a few business sites, the Web is still largely free to anyone with a modem and a phone line. Many information sites that once charged subscribers ( comes to mind) have subsequently capitulated to dot-communism. Moreover, virtually any site's content can be copied and pasted by subscribers and sent immediately to nonsubscribers in ways that destroy the tollbooth almost as soon as it is constructed. Private property in this world is about as fashionable as public property outside it.

This is surely good news. Left-leaning intellectuals have long worried about the way in which our public space -- shopping malls, urban parks -- have become increasingly private. Other liberals have emphasized the dangers to civic life of pervasive economic inequality. But the Web has provided small answers to both of these conundrums. As our public life has shrunk in reality, it has expanded exponentially online. Acting as a critical counterweight to market culture, the Web has made interactions between random, equal citizens far more possible than ever before. In the virtual city that the Web is quickly becoming, you can walk unimpeded into hundreds of thousands of apartments and play any music or read any book you find there. You can pick up almost any publication at the sidewalk newsstand and read it free. You can chat with the best gossip in town and hear the dish as soon as anyone else. There are very few cops, no taxes and, except for a tiny handful of exclusive salons, no keys, locks, tolls or security guards. This is what Marx dreamed of. It is what Plato fantasized about. It's what Thomas More dreamily satirized in "Utopia" -- or "nowhere land." Except that E-topia is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

Recall Marx's essential gripe about capitalism. It was that by converting everything into money, the market alienated human beings from one another and themselves. Rather than relating directly to one another, we related to money. Rather than doing something meaningful with our lives, we became specialized units of economic production, valued not for what we were but for what we produced and consumed. Part of the dream of communist consciousness was that by abolishing this system, by liberating human beings from the tyranny of being instruments of wealth creation, we would become more fully human. We would finally be ends, not means. We could farm, write poetry, fall in love, make music and listen to Santana -- all in the same day! We would be authentic again, valued not for our monetary worth but for our human capacities, which we would share freely and spontaneously with anyone else.

Private property is about as fashionable in the online world as public property is in the offline world.

Of course, we know now what the consequences are of actually trying to turn this utopia into reality. Unlike easily copied software, physical property tends to be missed when it's pilfered or shared. So the only way of ensuring that human beings commune with one another with sufficient enthusiasm is to create a government big enough and terrifying enough to compel them. Millions of murders later, Marxism has rightly been junked. But this is where the Web comes in. Having dissolved property into thin air, the Web has no need of a police force, and by preying on curiosity and mischief, it harnesses human nature rather than fighting it. Unlike communism, dot-communism is enforced through the impulsive decisions of millions of users. Try charging and you'll wait a long time for traffic; give it away free and they'll come running.

The Web does something else only dreamed of by Marx. It goes further than any previous innovation in alleviating the problem identified by Marx as "bourgeois alienation." For many, market democracy still means that people are being valued for their capacity to generate wealth, not their intrinsic human dignity. For many more, it means jobs they long to leave on Friday afternoon for brief glimpses of pleasure on the weekend. For more still, class and money are never left behind. Wherever they go, their clothes, accent and credit rating subtly keep them in their place.

But on the Internet, a simple screen name will get you almost anywhere free. Suddenly, motives other than the profit motive begin to come into play. People give you music because they actually want you to hear and enjoy it. People set up their own Web sites because they actually want to communicate with others. Chain e-mails pass along jokes for the sheer hell of it. Favorite columns get traded around -- and databases are linked together -- purely for mutual enlightenment or mutual mischief. By abolishing mine-thine, the Web also helps abolish the alienating, propertied distance between one person and another.

Apart from churches -- and even they take donations -- the Web is one of the few truly powerful private organizations that does not have money at its core. Again, consider Napster. It sells nothing. It asks nothing but a few personal particulars from its subscribers. You make up a name to join. It's just a means for people to communicate, share, copy. Napster is the favorite of college students everywhere because, like them, it's still dreaming. Eighteen-year-olds may be the last people on earth to still believe in communism, but unlike every previous generation of dreamers, these kids have figured out the technology to make it possible. So what if there's no money in it? That's the point! Indeed, if Napster ever starts charging subscription fees, some teenager will surely invent a rival method for distributing free music.

Sure, more and more Web sites want you to shop, not dream, but as their profit margins increasingly show, this is not what the technology is most comfortable doing. As more and more experiences -- musical, literary, erotic -- get translated into downloadable, postphysical entities, what scant profits there are now will dwindle away. This won't be as tragic as it sounds. Eventually, musicians will remember that the real reason they started their careers was to express themselves and communicate, rather than actually do it all to make money. And since money will no longer be required to access other artists' music, they will be less desperate to get rich. Dot-communism will help artists get back in touch with their authentic aspirations. Take that, Metallica!

The only drawback, of course, is that many of us quite like our bourgeois individualism. I am somewhat fond of the fact that I will actually get paid for writing this column, rather than sharing it free. So you can see the ideological battle ahead: greed on one side will face a feasible high-tech commune on the other. Big corporations will take on plucky teenagers. But given the track record so far, the teenagers and the commies may well win. Indeed, they already have. Take journalism. I can see the attraction of dot-communism in my own profession -- you could call it Hackster -- but I'm not sure I want to sign up. But then the more I think about it, the more I realize I already have. Almost every newspaper now gives away online what it used to charge for on paper. The proliferation of links, cybergossip and cyberhype means that articles online soon lose their point of origin, and, like orphaned MP3 files, Love Bug viruses and Al Gore jokes, move around the world with lightning speed. Eventually, even journalists may get used to the Marxist idea of writing for more than a bourgeois readership -- and writing for more than a check. Before too long, we may find ourselves setting up a Web site, penning bons mots each day and giving them all away for free! Come to think of it, will be up and running by Labor Day. I'm serious.

A specter, to put it bluntly, is haunting America: the specter of dot-communism. Of course, the deep problems that Marx identified -- the problems of alienation and inequality -- are not solved by dot-communism, but they are certainly salved by it, and in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. No revolution is required; and the bourgeoisie doesn't even have to be liquidated. In fact, capitalism made the whole thing possible, just as Marx suspected it would. And what, after all, could be more enticing at the dawn of the new century than a high-tech world solving a very low-tech human problem? So let the capitalist classes and the Recording Industry Association of America tremble. The dot-communists have nothing to lose but their chains. And they have a Web to win.