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Last edited 07 May 2021
Digital socialism and the non-planners
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Socially mobility is a measure of how easily a group or individual can move vertically from their current social hierarchical status, influenced by aspects such as wealth and income, race and gender, class and current social status, access to education, and occupation. Increasing social mobility is a meritocratic goal, as Kevin Kelly describes in ‘The New Socialism’: “...from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, giving ubiquitous access to everything for all.
Kelly’s ideas on a new digital socialism can be compared with those of Cedric Price and the Non-Planners, who used free market capitalism to appease the bureaucratic welfare state that was in place at the time non-plan was published, in the late 1960’s.
Kevin Kelly proposes that 'socialism' is the most fitting word to describe the virtual landscape that is emerging from advances in online technologies, “I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions”( Kelly 2009 p121)
He describes the internet as a tool of production and distribution that has evolved to increase individual autonomy and transcend bureaucratic monopolistic states. Social media such as Twitter, or Facebook, or Flickr, allow users to upload or download, tag themselves, add information about locations or significant times and dates, and so on. In addition, there are also learning resources such as TED, an online resource for higher education lectures, or Digg and Reddit which allow users to vote on web links that they feel are most important, Wikipedia, Youtube, Yelp, and so on.
What does this mean in terms of social mobility? In this virtual world users are not limited by race, gender, age, or education, they have almost unlimited access (pay walls and membership restrictions do apply to some online service), they can find anything, learn any subject, become whoever they want to be, talk to anyone anywhere regardless of location, say what they want (within the limits of the website you are using). Access to much knowledge is free, as Kelly explains “...instead of money, the peer producers who create the stuff gain status, enjoyment, satisfaction and experience” Kelly 2009 p122).
The factors that influence social mobility are being rewritten by a new socialism, wealth and income replaced with knowledge and experience, and users have the freedom to be able to change their circumstances and move through the social strata.
Cedric Price and the Non-planners (Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Peter Hall) first published The Non-plan in 1969 in an edition of ‘New Society’. Its purpose was to propose a form of ‘non-planning’ that would cater for the myriad of needs of society that the planning system and government of the time had failed to do.
The end of the 1960’s was an era of great political change, there was public unrest about the paternalistic welfare state and its failures to achieve social mobility. Price believed that it was the rigid authority and bureaucracy such as planners that were to blame for this; they halted any spontaneity that would allow for society to grow. Jonathan Hughes details non-plan effectively in ’After Non-Plan, Retrenchment and Reassertion’, “The authors of non-plan had, in 1969, sought to address the imbalance of power, to make design more responsive to the public by reasserting the relationship between the architect and the client – thereby simultaneously taming the preconceptions of architectural arrogance and short circuiting the planning authorities”, (Hughes 2000 p168)
Price’s ides are exemplified in his design for the ‘Fun Palace’, a structure designed not to appease with its aesthetics, as was attempted after the modernist era of 1960’s with vernacular architecture, but was instead fascinated with its function and environment for each individuals use. He was influenced in this by Joan Littlewood’s ‘A laboratory of fun’, a place where you could “...learn to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune into what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky” (Price 2003 p30). This was striving for a heightened individual experience, it enabled ‘self participatory education’ (Price 2003 p31) and entertainment, and was to be accessible not only to the immediate neighbourhood but to the wider region as well.
Price and the non-planners believed their plan would reassert the individual. But in order to strengthen this new individualistic society, a political vehicle was needed and for this, they followed the American model of free market capitalism. The model that was in place at the time in America can be described as neo liberal market capitalism; Peter Dicken details it in his book ‘Global Shift’, “In neo liberal market capitalism, as the term suggests, market mechanisms are used to regulate all or most aspects of the economy; individualism is a dominant characteristic, the state does not overtly attempt to plan the economy strategically” (Dicken 2003 p129). The market is given the freedom to develop naturally from individual need, fuelled by supply and demand and maintained by competition. As a result the market should remain regulated, prices are kept fair, businesses run in equilibrium, well paid jobs are created and maintained, and as a result the government receives taxes which fund social programmes for the community.
In terms of social mobility, as the market is regulated and prices stay 'fair', products and services become accessible to all, and more social programmes can be introduced as a result of increased government funding from taxes. It was this type of organic ad-hoc and spontaneous growth that attracted the non planners, the North American model was synonymous with freedom. In ‘Non-Plan’ they documented symbols of British trade such as ‘Tesco’ in the bright playful neon lighting akin to that seen in Las Vegas or Beverley hills, and detailed this as perfect for “...restoring [the] vitality and spontaneity to city life” (Franks 2000 p34) that the centralization of the current British government had denied.
However, free market capitalism in America had its own social concerns as Peter Philips suggests in his text ‘American Mantra: Free Market Capitalism’, “A closer examination of the American mantra reveals that ‘free market’ essentially means constant international U.S. government intervention on behalf of American corporations” (Phillips 2001 ), in such a competitive market it is inevitable that companies will attempt to maximise their profits, they aspire to achieve control and create monopolies. Consumers are charged higher prices, businesses take more profit and pay employees less. The rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and so accessibility decreases and along with it, social mobility. As a result the government has to intervene and introduce controls, returning us to a planned centralised state.
Apply this to the non-plan, and as Ben Franks argues, the result would have been “...to strengthen the power of multinationals and to impose business priorities on the public. Yet commercial predilections do not lead to lucid spontaneity, but to heteronomous control to check efficiency and the maximisation of profit” (Phillips 2001). To import any means of controls or checks would directly contradict the philosophy of non-planning.
Although the non-plan may not have directly produced social mobility, it may have had an indirect effect in the form of the squatting movement of the 1970’s. Hakim Bay describes the areas squatters inhabited as ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ)’, spontaneous communities working towards strengthening the working class by providing local events and gigs, and, campaigns and schemes, opening up opportunities not before available to the lower classes. Ben Franks describes them as “...short term providing intense excitement and the opening up of possibilities” (Franks 2000 p42). This is a true impermanent, flexible and spontaneous non-plan. By seeking only to strengthen community in an rather than to confront the state on a large scale they created freedom and so opportunities for social mobility.
“Revolutions have grown out of much smaller numbers” (Kelly 2009 p125).
Latent revolutionaries, in the form of coders, hackers, and programmers, are also key actors in Kelly’s text on new socialism: “but the coders, hackers, and programmers who design sharing tools don’t think of themselves as revolutionaries” (Kelly 2009 p125). Perhaps these are the non-planners of the virtual landscape.
“one study estimates that 60,000 man years of work have poured into last year’s release of Fedora Linux 9”( Kelly 2009 p124), working free of charge producing high market value goods. However, Linux are not the economic beneficiaries of this work, but rather companies like red hat who provide, technical support, and create additional software. Their reported revenue for 2011 was $245 million with a predicted increase of up to 25% year-after-year.
A study into global internet usage revealed that out only 2 billion out of the worlds 7 billion poeple have access to or have used the internet, that is, less than a third are able to get online. So how can it be as free as Kelly claims? Access to the solid infrastructure (computers, smart phones, etc) that supports this virtual world is not universal. In order to access the virtual world, you must first conquer the social mobility obstacles, such as money, that prevent the lower social strata and less developed from accessing the new digital socialism. Perhaps it is this that prevents the system achieving its full potential for social mobility.
 The future
As Kelly points out, “The force of online socialism is growing. It is dynamic spreading beyond electrons – perhaps into election” (Kelly 2009 p125). Those with access to this world can now, as a group, effect the outcome of elections. As social mobility increases, allowing further access to the online world, this 'group' power is likely to increase, and the barriers between the physical and the virtual is likely to decrease. As Peter Dicken describes “...societies vary in the extent to which people, in general, are motivated to look after their own individual interests – where ties between individuals are very loose – and those in which ties are very close and the collective (family, community, etc) is the important consideration” (Dicken 2003 p126)
The Non-plan and 'new socialism' both demonstrate that it is possible to run capitalism and socialism in parallel by considering the group and individual simultaneously, through a model of impermanence. In non-plan, squatters where not static, they remained flexible and able to dissolve or grow where appropriate. Similarly, the internet remains a constant non-static feature. Websites and ideas can pop up or be removed with relative ease and the whole system is that of choice, “...rather than viewing technological socialism as one side of a zero sum trade off between free market individualism and centralised authority, it can be seen as a cultural OS that elevates the individual and group at once” (Kelly 2009 p124)
In its support for both free market capitalism and its opportunity for profit, and its manifestation as a vehicle for social mobility it is possible to consider the individual and the group simultaneously. It is a landscape festering with “ad-hocracy” (Kelly 2009 p121),as well as “...a design frontier and a particularly fertile space for innovation” Kelly 2009 p121). It is designed to “...heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralisation” (Kelly 2009 p121), whilst at the same time supporting the free market through communal co-operation and collaboration.
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