Neal Gorenflo, from Shareable, Michel Bauwens, from the P2P Foundation and John Robb, from Global Guerrillas, interview las Indias’ David de Ugarte
Translated/Re-edited * by Stacco Troncoso, edited by Ann Marie Utratel
In this interview, Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo, John Robb of Global Guerrillas, and P2P foundation’s Michel Bauwens talk to David de Ugarte, one of the originators of the Spanish cyberpunk scene, about his more recent work developing a multinational worker cooperative, Las Indias, that is a culmination of his community’s thinking and work for the last decade. Las Indias is the manifestation of a unique socio-economic philosophy that synthesizes many strains of thinking and culture including cyberpunk, anarchism, network thinking, and cooperatives – all with a Spanish twist. It’s important because it points to a possible future for those who think outside of national boundaries, and who desire or need to take control of their own economic destiny. It’s a possible future that takes the centuries-old logic of cooperatives and remixes it for the urban-centered, global network society we live in today.
Michel Bauwens: Explain to us what Las Indias is, where it comes from, and what makes it distinctive?
David de Ugarte: Las Indias is the result of the Spanish-speaking cyberpunk movement. Originally a civil rights group, during the late 90s it became strongly influenced by Juan Urrutia’s “Economics of Abundance” theory. We soon linked “abundance” with the idea of empowerment in distributed networks. We are very clear on this point: it is not the Internet by itself, it is the distributed P2P architecture that allows the new commons. As one of our old slogans put it: “Under every informational architecture lays a structure of power.” Re-centralizing structures – as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Megaupload, etc. do around their servers – weakens us all. The blogosphere, torrents, freenet, etc. are tools of empowerment.
Cyberpunk was mainly a conversational / cyberactivist virtual community. It became transnational quickly, and contributed some very good discussions and theories that helped us understand the social impact and possibilities of distributed networks.
But in 2002, three of us founded Las Indias Society, a consultancy firm focused on innovation and networks dedicated to empowering people and organizations. Our experience soon became very important in understanding the opposition between “real” and “imagined” communities, and the organizational bases for an economic democracy. After the cyberpunk dissolution in 2007, the “Montevideo Declaration” openly stated that our objective will be to construct a “phyle,” a transnational economic democracy, in order to ensure the autonomy of our community and its members.
We define ourselves around five main values:
- Distributed network architectures as a way of generating abundance, empowerment, and to ensure the widest plurarchy – the maximum of individual liberties – for the members of our community.
- Transnationality (which means a rejection of national identities as well as universalism) as a consequence of putting the real community of persons who live and work in Las Indias at the center of our work.
- Economic democracy as the way to build personal and community autonomy through the market.
- Hacker ethics as a way to foster community knowledge generation, common deliberation, personal passion, and a collective pleasure in learning.
- Devolutionism: all our production of knowledge – books, software, contents, even recipes – is returned to the commons, generating more abundance.
Neal Gorenflo: What is the vision of Las Indias? What would the classic, most developed form be in the future? What are you after in terms of how it can transform individuals, interpersonal relationships, and the world?
Our vision is not a universalist one. We don’t proselytize and we really believe that diversity is a desirable consequence of freedom.
But we have a vision for us – the phyle – and a wish: to see the birth of a wider, transnational space of economic democracies. We imagine networks of phyles generating wealth, social cohesion, and ensuring liberties for real people rather than the governments’ power and their borders and passports.
We are not naive nor utopian. Distributed networks gave our generation the opportunity to build a new world. But this new world, based on the commons, communities, economic democracy and distributed networks, isn’t completely born. And the old world, based on the artificial generation of scarcity, corporations, inequality, and centralized networks, isn’t dead.
It is very symptomatic that the European crisis manifests as a debt crisis. Governments are suffocating society in order to feed privileged groups – big corporations, some sectors dependent on public money – who have captured state rents or ensured it through monopolistic law. So, the main objective and the main vision now is to stop these decomposing forces in our environments.
MB: How does Las Indias work internally? How is it funded?
There are different levels of engagement and commitment. As a phyle we are really a network. On the periphery, there are individual entrepreneurs with their initiatives. At the core, there are the associated cooperatives, and at that core, the Indianos.
Indianos are communities that are similar to kibbutzim (no individual savings, collective and democratic control of their own coops, etc.). But there are some important differences like the lack of a shared national or religious ideology, being distributed throughout cities rather than concentrated in a compound, and not submitting to an economic rationality.
John Robb: What kind of coops are in the Las Indias network? What are the synergies between the cooperatives?
At this moment we have three coops: Las Indias (a consultancy), El Arte (our new product lab), and Enkidu (Open Software). There are also three participative enterprises that employ some 20 people.
All of them are expressions of our members’ different passions, which answer the different needs of our community and environment.
MB: How do you position yourself vis-a-vis the current global capitalist system? What alternative are you proposing?
We think cooperatives and economic democracy (a rent-free market society), hand in hand with a liberated commons as the alternative to capitalism, can be made possible through distributed networks.
But we are economic democrats, so we don’t want the state to provide the alternative to crony-capitalism and accumulation. Indeed, we think it can’t. We have to build it by ourselves, and demand the state to remove the obstacles (as IP, contracts for big politically connected corporations, etc.) that protect privileged groups’ rents from competition in the market.
The alternative will not be built through government regulations, but inside our own networks. It will not defeat the corporate organization through courts or elections, but through competition.
NG: We live in a world saturated in corporate media. How do you maintain a culture of cooperation at Las Indias in the face of this onslaught of atomizing, consumerist messages? What spiritual or cultural practices and artifacts can you point to that are especially helpful?
All of us spent many years sharing small apartments downtown, walking or going to work by bus, working in bad jobs through school and after finishing our degrees. It is not a unique condition, it is the reality of the job market in Spain, Portugal, and many Latin American countries in a wide group of middle class children of our generation.
The result of this experience for many people was a particular culture that mixed a lot of immaterial, cultural consumption – some of it provided for free, by the state – with a reduced access to consumerism compared to older people.
In 1996, I was 26 and finishing a degree in economics in Madrid. I worked in a call center earning 450€ a month, working eight hours a day from four to midnight. I spent 300€ on rent, around 100€ for food, electricity, telephone and public transport, and 48€ on an Internet connection. As you can imagine, my “leisure” time was spent around the public library, museums, the public filmotheque (classic movies were 60 cents a ticket), at cheap potluck dinners and, of course, online.
My experience was not extraordinary at all, and it’s even more common now.
This mode of cultural consumption is based on public cultural goods, cheap second-hand or popular edition books, and “cocooning.” The P2P world made sense in our everyday culture.
So, some years later our incomes increased and we earned autonomy, but for us a good living still means good broadband, access to cultural works, good museums, and good meals in comfortable but not very expensive flats downtown. None of us has a car or has bought a house.
But please don’t be confused. We don’t make a cult of austerity. We simply have a different culture, we enjoy different things. None of us has a TV either, but many of us have projectors for watching videos off the Internet.
NG: In Spain, you’re often associated with the cyberpunk movement, which was born in the US in the early 80s. How has cyberpunk influenced you and Las Indias? And how is cyberpunk relevant today?
Cyberpunk activism was strongly influenced by cyberpunk literature. Even today, classic cyberpunk works like Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net and Green Days in Brunei, and post-cyberpunk like Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, provide models for discussing subjects we think are important at this moment: distributed vs. centralized networks, economic democracy vs. corporate power, etc.
Cyberpunk taught us to discuss in a mode outside the political tradition: not around theses and programs, but around models and myths, where auto-criticism and irony were easier and dogmatism almost impossible.
MB: For me, some of the most innovative concepts in the Las Indias books were the concepts of phyles and neo-venetianism. What do these mean?
Phyle is a community that develops an economic structure based on economic democracy in order to ensure its own autonomy. The order of the terms is important: phyle is a community with firms, not a community of firms, nor a community of people who own some firms. The firms are tools for the autonomy of the community – a means, not an end – and are always less important than the needs of community members.
Neovenetianism is the ideology of those who see the creation of phyles as the natural evolution of their communities, so that this evolution, its dialogues and deliberations, would be free from the influence of the political and economic decomposition of the states and the markets they live in.
Virtual communities are by nature transnational. If they have borders, these are the borders of language. A few days ago I saw a tweet saying, “When the Canadian border crossing guards asked me where I was from, I was really tempted to say ‘the internet.’” Many people feel like that tweeter. But that causes a kind of schizophrenia: life becomes divided in two, the virtual life and the working life. Phyles reunify our lives around our intentional virtual community.
MB: What do the new concepts of the sharing economy (Shareable), p2p (P2P Foundation), the commons, and resilience (Global Guerrillas) evoke for you, and how does Las Indias relate to them?
P2P means distributed networks, commons, abundance. It’s the meaning of life!
The sharing economy means community, autonomy, commons, gift, joy, abundance again. It is the real sense of our core, the “how-to” of abundance, the way we live.
Resilience is at the same time the golden rule and the consequence of building community on a shared economy under a P2P architecture. It is our main virtue and the only thing that can guarantee survival even under increasing global decomposition.
JR: Any plans for micro-finance or a bank to speed cooperative growth?
We made a big effort to set up partnerships with mutual benefit societies and credit coops in South America. Our idea was to bring in our knowledge and criteria to create viable and productive coops, while the credits coops would attract new solid, stable members in the mid-term.
However, a series of accidents and health issues in the middle of 2012 affected our plans, and that idea had to be abandoned as the Indianos decided to “regroup” in Europe. So, we’ve had to develop these ideas in different ways for the last year and half.
In September 2012 we created Fondaki-SIP-ner, along with a dozen small industrial companies, many of them coops. Fondaki is a not-for-profit public intelligence consultancy that helps small and medium enterprises find new markets and develop new lines of innovation, two key issues for small enterprises and coops looking to face the consequences of the current crisis without destroying employment, while creating social cohesion. In January 2013 the younger Indianos founded Enkidu, the first coop created by our core group since the beginning of the crisis in 2008.
And, of course, we’re still focused on the globalization of “the small”. We think that’s one of the key issues today. In 2012, along with the Garum Foundation, we worked on the development of “Bazar”, which is free software for the creation of distributed commercial networks. It’s something we’d like to take up again, and which would complement the development of the Direct Economy, probably the most important opportunity for generating communal autonomy today.
JR: How long does it take to train a regular person in cooperative business practices? Are there plans for teaching cooperative thinking online to grow it faster?
It takes time! Unfortunately, almost everything in the mainstream culture teaches us that the world is a zero-sum game, and that markets must be ruled by jungle law. But the simple truth is that they shouldn’t be, and we, people, can make the difference.
What we’ve noticed these last few years is that one of the most destructive side effects of the crisis is how it affects people’s confidence in their own capabilities. Especially in Europe, among the generation that finished its studies post-2008, the effect is often devastating. People find it very hard to believe that the system can offer them a future when it can’t even offer them a job. But it’s also difficult to imagine your own future, an alternate endeavor of one’s own, when every other conversation, year after year, comes back to the “no future” scenario.
This is why, towards the end of 2013, we’ve re-oriented our whole communications strategy, especially lasindias.com, towards “an interesting life”. During all these years, from cyberpunk to 2012, we were characterized by striving to provide a perspective on the political significance of technology. That was also at the core of our books, from “Like a vine, not like a tree” in 2003 to “The P2P mode of production” in 2012. But now we feel the need to focus on something more basic, an ethical, empowering perspective without which the questions we’re looking to answer wouldn’t make any sense. Why would anyone want to partake in commons-oriented peer production when they can’t even imagine a future for their own community? How will anyone create or join a cooperative when they think that any collective decision-making process is something authoritative?
JR: How do Las Indias cooperatives tie into the physical community?
Our sense of community is indeed very physical on all levels. The inner circle, los indianos, try to work together as much as possible, sharing offices or houses.
The wider community, the aggregation of our families and close friends, is at the center of our concerns. I mean, it’s not only the question of time management, the possibility of spending more time with your people than in a “normal job.” The kind of security you build in a model like ours it is not only about yourself, you know that all the common resources will be ready for your family and your people if they will need it.
MB: Where will humanity be in 20 years?
I hope we will see big transnational spaces with freedom of movement and trade, instigated by networks of economic democracies building wider commons accessible to everyone.
We’ll see. I hope to see the erosion of this idea called capitalism, according to which a single production factor — capital — is the sole determinant of a company’s ownership. The reduction of the scale of production has been the one fundamental tendency that’s remained constant over the last century. As a result, capital isn’t as scarce as it was at the birth of the present economic system. In fact, as the value of production is further tied to factors such as creativity or knowledge, the entire pyramid-like organizational structure becomes ever more dysfunctional, highlighting the need for cooperative protocols in companies.
I hope we will live in a society where capitalism will be marginal but with a market that will not allow rents nor privileges, where the mix of small and ubiquitous tools of production will be furthered by big global repositories of public domain designs as innovative and popular as free software is now.
I hope that in twenty years we will be living in a transnational society, but it is not historically determined. There are a lot of agents pushing towards recentralization: IP lobbies, big Internet firms, rent seekers, state machinery, financial interests, global mafias, etc. So the possibility of terminal nationalism and statism with its social decomposition is also there.
The choice between a society of freedom, based in an egalitarian market and robust commons, and global decomposition depends of our actions in this decade.
- Images by Las Indias and Shareable
- Read the Spanish version here
*. [This article was originally published in Shareable in February 2012. We contacted Bauwens, Gorenflo and de Ugarte to check whether it had been translated to Spanish or not. It turned out it hadn’t, so we proposed translating and revising the text to reflect the changes of the last two years, with de Ugarte updating his original answers and providing some new ones. This version contains both our translation back to English, and our copyediting of the updated interview. ]↩